Must you still go to the office? A case for teleworking in the Caribbean

Is your commute time to the office longer than 30 minutes outside of rush hour traffic? Do you maintain weekday accommodations to reduce your commute time to and from work?  Do you find yourself either getting to the office earlier than necessary or staying at work later than you should just to beat the traffic? This post examines some of the merits and challenges of teleworking.

In the Caribbean region, many of us experience considerable challenges to get to work on time. For most of us, it is traffic congestion, which we might try to minimise by leaving home even earlier in the mornings and/or staying at the office later in the evenings. For others, whose primary residence might be an appreciable distance away, they might secure secondary accommodations closer to work, which they use during the work week. These and other similar situations highlight the fact that the daily commute to and from work often consumes significant portions of our time and money, and might not necessarily be efficient or productive.

“Teleworking”, which is also referred to as “telecommuting”, “remote work”, “virtual work”, “flexible workplace” and “mobile work”, is an arrangement where employees work from home for either a portion or all of a work week, but maintain contact with their offices via electronic means. It is rarely used exclusively. Regular face-to-face meetings are usually scheduled.

Policymakers across the region have bandied about the concept of teleworking since the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was seen as natural progression of liberalisation and competition in the telecoms sector. However, over a decade later, teleworking is rarely an option available to employees in the region, but there are a number of benefits that can be realised.

Increased productivity. When teleworking arrangements are established, employee productivity can increase. Employees are less distracted by office commotion and interruptions. They can also be more rested and less stressed, since there is no commute time on the days they are working from home.

Reduced expenses. This is benefit to both employer and employee. With regard to the employer, securing and maintaining sufficient office space for all of its employees is a considerable ongoing expense. Depending on the teleworking arrangement that is established, an organisation may permanently decrease the size its accommodations, which in turn could reduce its operating expenses. With regard to the worker, employers rarely compensate their staff for transportation costs to get to the office where they are based. Employees usually foot those expenses out of their earnings. With teleworking, some savings could be realised that could be put towards other personal needs.

Reduced carbon footprint. Although environmentalism has not yet permeated all levels of Caribbean society, there will soon be calls for increased awareness and action by organisations and citizens. Teleworking can be an important means for both employers and employees to drastically reduce their carbon footprints by decreasing fuel consumption due to travelling. Greenhouse gas emissions would also be reduced if less office space is required, which in turn leads to lower electricity (lighting and cooling) costs.

Improved work-life balance. Although most workdays are 7.5 to 8 hours long, when commute time is factored in, employees can easily spend over 12 hours per day in work mode. Introducing teleworking arrangements can increase their personal time, which improves the work-life balance and can lead to better employment satisfaction.

Technology is available. The advances we have seen in ICT in recent years means that there is a wide range of efficient and cost effective options for organisations to maintain contact with their workers offsite.

Challenges of teleworking

On the flip-side, however, teleworking is not for everyone or for every organisation. Depending on the extent to which is introduced, there are a number of factors that should be considered, a few of which are outlined below.

Radical change in corporate ethos. Traditionally, employers are paying their workers for their time (at a specific location) – X hours a day between specific hours. Under a teleworking scheme, employers might not be able to truly keep track of a worker’s whereabouts without invasive measures. There is a loss of hands-on control, so organisations must be clear about their expectations of how persons will operate under that arrangement, and also be prepared to make the necessary adjustments.

Employee discipline. Persons must be disciplined enough to work unsupervised and to manage the distractions that tend to exist at home. Many people think they can multitask since they are at home, for example doing housework or taking care of children when they are supposed to be working. However, such distractions can affect job performance and ultimately can undermine the entire teleworking arrangement.

Some jobs not suited. Some jobs can thrive in a remote working environment, other cannot. Examples would include those for which in person or group interaction is vital and comprises considerable portions of the workday, and positions that require access to sensitive information for which remote access might not be allowed. However, current and developing technologies and capabilities are continually addressing business needs in an online environment, so viable options might exist.

Teleworking can drastically change the work environment in the Caribbean, by introducing greater efficiencies and increasing productivity. Further, as a region whose economies are highly dependent on tourism and foreign investments, an emphasis on remote working arrangements could be used as a marketing tool to attract businesses that require similar facilities. More importantly, as the cost of living and of fuel continues to rise and life becomes even more challenging, teleworking can offer a much-needed reprieve and can improve the quality of life of a wide cross-section of citizens.

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2 Comments

  • A good topic. Having just been in it, the only drawback I would consider in addition is that it is adding to our reclusiveness. Office or work environment more often than not form part of our lives. Interactions therein, occasional impromptu meetings, etc form part our social being.

    Further, during the time one is tele-working, everybody else is in offices or away at work. Probably until such time when it is fully widespread, it’s potential benefits, as highlighted in the article, may not be fully appreciated.

    • I do agree that reclusiveness can result, but then balance is the key. The employer/employee can opt for just one or two days a week, and there are still benefits to be had…

      However, I think it is critical that people (employees) know their working styles. For example, do they thrive when they an interact with their colleagues – to bounce ideas, or do they really need to be away from home in order to focus on work? Perhaps this was your experience?

      I think through these kind of considerations employee and organisation can get some insight on whether teleworking could work for them. It must be a good fit, or else it could be counterproductive…

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