Labor shortages lead to uptick in telecommuting

Labor shortages lead to uptick in telecommuting

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 by Floor Covering Weekly

More and more companies are offering their employees the option of regularly or occasionally telecommuting. While this trend presents a lot of advantages to both employees and employers, there are also some emerging concerns. However, the comparative advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting often obscure the real reason that it is growing in popularity, which is that employers need to attract workers, but often have limits to the compensation that they can offer. Instead, what they can provide is quality of life benefits, and telecommuting is one of these popular but affordable options.

In a recent national survey of architecture firms, for example, almost nine in 10 firms offered employees some type of remote working option. Often this option was only available on an ad hoc basis, but at many firms, employees are allowed to work remotely at least one day per week. And the growing popularity of telecommuting is not being driven by smaller firms that may want to manage their office rents; larger firms surprisingly are much more likely to offer remote working options.

Employers note important direct benefits of offering telecommuting options, including potentially reducing space needs, as well as creating more productive workers. Yet the real benefits come from improved employee satisfaction with their work. Again, a survey of architecture firms found that almost two-thirds of respondents felt that remote work options increased employee retention, and over three-quarters reported increased employee morale. And, as an added bonus, a third felt that their office’s carbon footprint was reduced with telecommuting.

In the current hyper-competitive business environment, attracting and retaining productive employees is typically the number one concern of employers. As a result, employers have had to become more creative in designing a more desirable workplace, and offering quality of life benefits can be critical in this regard. More employers are now offering casual office dress options, flexible work hours, paid time off to volunteer, shorter summer or seasonal hours, and a pet-friendly or child-friendly office in addition to telecommuting options.

However, there are potential costs to offering staff telecommuting options, although many of these costs are difficult to measure, and are to some extent subjective. Telecommuting often reduces staff collaboration, and this casual interaction may produce new ideas and new solutions to problems. Reduced staff interaction may also hinder team-building and other benefits that come from a  staff working more closely together. There is a debate as to the impact of telecommuting on worker productivity. On the positive side, some portion of the time that is typically spent commuting may now be spent on work activities, extending the effective workday for these employees. However, from another perspective, telecommuting may reduce productivity by limiting those quick staff interactions that might resolve a problem or issue. Also, telecommuting often increases those annoying distractions that a home office presents. Finally, technology costs to the employer may increase as some staff need to duplicate equipment at home that is available at work.

Overall, though, leverage is currently with employees in most instances. When higher wages or increased employer contributions for benefits are not feasible, less expensive quality of life benefits are an attractive option. Employees are beginning to expect that these sorts of benefits will remain in the future, if not be expanded. However, as economic conditions change, this may not be the case. Stay tuned.

Kermit Baker is the senior research fellow for the Joint Center of Housing Studies at Harvard University. He may be reached via e-mail at [email protected]