11 Problems You Can Solve in 2009: Part V – Telecommuting

In 2009, I expect telecommuting worldwide to take a hit. Yes, we saw an increase in employers allowing employees to telework in 2008—the figure jumped from 30% of organizations in 2007 to 42% in 2008, according to a WorldatWork study.

While a CompTIA Web survey indicated that telecommuting improves productivity and lowers costs, the fact remains that allowing employees to telecommute introduces risk to employers. Risks to the security of data is just the beginning; many managers and organizations simply don’t have experience with a telecommuting program, which makes a new telecommuting program a management and human-resources risk.

If there’s one trend you can count on in 2009, it’s this: Employers will seek to avoid risk with reckless abandon.

While many are continuing to push for the spread of telecommuting (and some see the upward trend to continuing through next year), it’s going to be a very tough sell to employers.

The number of managers experienced with telecommuting is especially low in areas, like Lancaster County and Central PA, that were historically heavy on manufacturing. When it comes to using communications technologies and adopting fresh business strategies, the rust belt is rusty.

Therefore, I see very little opportunity to change the way existing organizations handle telecommuting, particularly in our region. Where I do see the opportunity is in attracting people and companies that already embrace telecommuting to our region due to the combination of our low cost of living and our proximity to major metropolitan areas. Doing that attracting is the fifth opportunity for entrepreneurial fun and profit in 2009

No. 5: Telecommuting

Problems: Few Central PA employers will offer telecommuting as an option;  less “tele-commutable” work worldwide
Assets: Low cost of living in Lancaster/Central PA, combined with being within travel distance to major East-Coast metropolitan areas

There is no denying that telecommuting is more viable now than ever. It may stop expanding as a trend in 2009, but by some estimates as many as 59% of organizations offer some of their employees the option to do at least some work outside the office. One of the big reasons that employers embrace telecommuting is because it can drastically reduce costs (especially the overhead costs of having to “house” an employee in the office).

If this is what you see when you telecommute, doesn't it make sense to live somewhere with a low cost of living? Photo by Flickr user DDFic, under a Creative Commons license.

At the same time, there are still risks and disadvantages to employers. The most popular way of mitigating those risks and disadvantages is by having employees who telecommute spend at least a little time each week on site, either in the office or at a face-to-face meeting with a client.

Whether the case at hand is of an individual or of a company, the cost of living in Lancaster specifically and Central PA generally should be attractive. If you’re going to telecommute, it makes more sense to do so from a location where the cost of living is low rather than from, say, midtown Manhattan.

Lancaster is a more affordable place than Manhattan. It’s 49% cheaper to live here. It’s 34% cheaper than Boston, 49% cheaper than Washington DC, 19% cheaper than Newark, 7% cheaper than Baltimore, and 8% cheaper than Philadelphia. (You can do your own comparisons at BestPlaces.net.)

For an individual or company, relocating to this region would fall somewhere between having hour-long commutes and telecommuting from India. An individual telecommuting from India can’t be at the important meeting in Baltimore tomorrow afternoon. An individual with an hour-long commute is still in the suburbs of a city with a high cost of living (to say nothing of the 2 hours spent in transit each day).

Telecommuting required a new set of tools, procedures, and practices in order to become viable on a mass scale. Telelocating (telecommunitying?  proximity-telecommuting?) will require the same. Serious profits await the ones who develop those tools, procedures, and practices and bring them to scale.

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Read Part I – Construction
Read Part II – Journalism
Read Part III – Continuing Ed
Read Part IV – Lending