Telecommuting: Going to Work Without Ever Leaving Home
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Pat Bodnar.
And I’m Steve Ember. Millions of Americans are now paid to spend at least some of their work hours working from home. Computers, telephones and fax machines keep them connected to their offices.
Today we examine the popularity – and problems – of telecommuting.
Some Americans start their workday fifteen minutes after they wake up. Some even stay in their nightclothes.
These people are among a growing number who work from home at least one day a month. Some even do this every day. This way of working is called telecommuting or teleworking.
Telecommuters do not always work from home. They might go to an office, but still it is away from their main place of employment.
The idea of telecommuting by computer goes back more than thirty years. For awhile, it did not gain as much popularity as its supporters had expected.
Then came the nineteen nineties, and the rise of the personal computer and the Internet. Today, telecommuting is gaining much wider acceptance.
In nineteen ninety-seven, about twelve million people in the United States worked at home at least one day a month. That is what researchers found. Research done in August of two thousand five found a much different situation. More than forty-five million people had worked from home at some time during the past month.
Government Computer News reported in December on the popularity of teleworking among federal employees. That publication told about a study by the United States Office of Personnel Management.
The study found that more than one hundred forty thousand federal workers took part in telecommuting in two thousand four. That was up from about seventy-three thousand in April of two thousand one.
Eight percent of federal civilian workers now telecommute.
Federal law requires most government agencies to establish a telecommuting policy. Telecommuting is especially popular in the departments of Defense, Treasury, Justice, and Health and Human Services.
Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia is a big supporter of telecommuting. Mr. Wolf says teleworking can reduce heavy traffic and road damage in the Washington, D.C., area.
He leads a subcommittee in the House of Representatives that provides money for government operations. Congressman Wolf wants more agencies to let workers telecommute. And he wants those that already do to increase their number of telecommuters or lose millions of dollars.
Telecommuting can also increase the employment of disabled workers, as President Bush called for in two thousand three. And it may be important for continuing government operations in times of severe weather, or an emergency like a terrorist attack.
Of course, not everyone could telecommute and still get their jobs done. Could a plumber fix a broken pipe from home? Maybe -- by guiding someone else through the repairs. But many people have jobs that seem natural for telework.
Experts say lawyers, computer programmers and college professors are often good candidates. So are people like financial advisers, tax experts and online teachers.
But the idea of telecommuting does not appeal to everyone. Some people do not want to mix home and office life. Some fear that if they telecommute, they will not make progress in their organizations. They fear they may become less important to their employers.
Employers may or may not provide equipment for work at home. And tying into an employer's computer system may not always be easy.
But many people want to telecommute. They welcome it as recognition of good work and dependability. It saves the time and cost of traveling to and from work.
In some cases, having employees work from home can reduce tensions in the workplace. It can give workers more freedom, so they feel more control over their lives. They can better decide how to balance work and family needs. For parents, that can mean fewer worries about children home alone.
Some telecommuters say having permission to work from home makes them better workers. They might feel the need to work harder and communicate more with their supervisors.
Some employers may have their suspicions about telecommuting. But many managers say they are pleased with it. They note that it can reduce the need for office space, and even cut down on employee absences. People who might make others sick if they came to work might still be well enough to work from home.
Experts say telecommuting can help organizations keep good workers who live far from the office, or want to move out of the area. It can also help when the office itself moves.
Some unions have concerns about telecommuting. They worry that it might make enforcing work rules or conditions more difficult if people are away from the workplace. One union said it was unfair to other workers that telecommuters did not have to travel to the office.
Cisco Systems is the leading seller of equipment for making networks on the Internet. It says companies that want to establish telecommuting have dealt with union concerns in several ways.
Some let only non-union workers telecommute. Others make decisions without negotiating with the union. Still others have union representatives attend planning programs for telecommuters.
Concerns about telecommuting extend beyond union issues. Employees who have to stay in the office might feel hostility toward those who are able to work from home.
Or they might feel that a telecommuter is not working hard enough -- or never did enough to earn the right to work from home. And what happens if there is a crisis that suddenly requires more people than are in the office to deal with it?
These are all issues that employers and employees must think about. Another is information security. There may be worries about the stealing of information from a telecommuter's home or computer. Experts, however, say good planning can reduce that risk, just as it can in an office.
One of the first telecommuters in the United States may have been the president of a bank in Boston, Massachusetts. In eighteen seventy-seven he began to use a telephone line that operated from his home to his bank.
But it took many years for modern telework to develop. It also took a rocket scientist.
Jack Nilles is called the father of telecommuting and telework. Mr. Nilles was educated as a scientist and engineer. He led the design process for several space vehicles and communications systems for NASA and the Air Force.
Jack Nilles was teaching at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, when he started his research on working from home. In nineteen seventy-three he began tests of a computer system. Telecommuters at home used machines linked to large computers at their jobs.
His studies helped lead to office telecommuting as well as call centers.
In recent years, many companies have moved customer service operations out of a central office. Instead, they use customer service agents who work at home. These workers often take orders for products and services, anything from airplane tickets to flowers to health plans.
The pay is not high, but the people have more control over their hours. Many have young children or older family members who need care.
Today, telecommuting is not only changing how Americans work. It is also changing how a lot of people live.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Pat Bodnar.
And I’m Steve Ember. Read and listen to our programs on the Web at voaspecialenglish.com. And join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.