Cubicle or Couch: Which Works Better?

Washington State’s New Proposed Telecommuting Bill

Washington State Telecommuting

If you ask anyone about their daily commute, you’re likely to hear tales about traffic woes, time complaints, and grudges against gas prices. By contrast, someone who works from home will boast of a “commute” from their bedroom to their home office (or the couch with their laptop). The genuine smile they wear reveals just how they feel about telecommuting. Telecommuters are happier, and not just due to the lack of traffic troubles!

The Basics of Business

Compared to 75 years ago, organizations have evolved in many ways. Office layouts have changed, and organizational charts have expanded with departments that didn’t exist just a decade ago. But the greatest difference is that a private office for most of the staff is a thing of the past.

Now we use cubicles that lack privacy, but offer flexibility in a modular design that can be changed as spatial needs demand. A quick look at a typical office space reveals the basics for most businesses:

  • A central multi-function printer/photocopier
  • A breakroom
  • A myriad of desks or cubicles with computer monitors

The idea of cubicles originated from the need for efficiency –a way to accommodate a growing staff without expanding the office space. Staff levels were increasing, but organizations weren’t prepared to invest the time and money into purchasing additional property—Economic growth simply outpaced spatial growth. Cubicles offered a cost-effective and immediate answer, with more privacy and the promise of noise reduction compared to an open environment.

The Evolution of the Workspace

Cubicle workspaces have evolved with the changing business climate. In recent years, cubicle design has shifted to lower walls with the idea that an open-style workspace promotes collaboration and communication. Gone is the notion that an employee requires silence for productivity.

Desks still have room for family photos, but when a workspace lacks walls, it also lacks the ability for a professional to maximize productivity according to their individual needs. If someone needs quiet to focus on a task, the white noise that fills a workspace won’t help. A telecommuter, on the other hand, can set up a workspace in their home to their exact liking. The better part of this is in the adaptability to their changing moods. Does listening to Chopin help you write stellar emails? Does listening opera help you draft a blueprint? Does punk rock help you paint? Whatever you need, you can adjust your surroundings to your whims.

Happier staff by default decrease turnover, which decreases potential downtime for an organization. Happier staff are healthier and less stressed. This is more cost-effective in the long run. Attendance isn’t an issue if the staff doesn’t need to worry about a critical presence within a geographical location at a given time.

Benefits for Businesses

Employing a remote staff is good for business. Employers can position telecommuting options as an employee benefit with a focus on work/life balance. Plus, you can employ individuals from different cities and countries. A global workforce gives you a global view, with virtually endless resources for any need that may arise. Built-in translators, cultural experts at the grassroots level, and a more cosmopolitan outlook are all benefits of a global remote workforce.

Why should a company pay for property to use roughly 8-10 hours daily and for only part of the week? Whether leasing space on the floor of a skyscraper or purchasing an entire building, there are still invisible overhead costs like utilities and insurance to consider, and all this for consumption only half the time in a given day. With only so much real property either currently in existence or land to build on, these costs will only increase over time – as will the cost of construction and infrastructure. Decreasing, or eliminating real estate costs is a tantalizing option for any business.

Communication Considerations

Is the world of telecommuting perfect? Unfortunately, no – there are downsides to employing a remote staff. Less comradery and personal interactions exist, even without the added consideration of time differences. Teams must work that much harder to maintain a joint effort to complete projects and tasks. A unified vision is necessary to achieve goals or chaos will ensue. However, from a management standpoint, you can offset most of these concerns with a focus on communication.

Speaking of communication, a uniform platform is a must. Solutions like Basecamp and Trello for team project collaboration are quite popular today, and with good reason; these allow for timely updates and customized notification settings for each team member. While email is acceptable for communication, it’s nearly obsolete today purely because of its simplicity.

Remote teams still need to talk to each other, and not just over the phone. Even yesterday’s go-to programs like WebEx and GoToMeeting are used less often, replaced with the likes of Skype and Google Hangouts for online conferencing because of their adaptability. Need to attend a department meeting in your pajamas? Disable video. Need to drop off the kids at soccer practice? Install these apps on your mobile device and take your work with you.

The success of a telecommuting workforce also depends on a reliable Internet connection, a sufficient workspace, power, and technical capabilities. The burden of proof is on the telecommuter in this instance, rather than the organization – which is a bonus. This burden is offset by the telecommuter’s ability to claim a portion of these expenses on their annual tax return as home office deductions.

Money Talks

In truth, a company’s primary goal is to produce revenue. You’ve undoubtedly heard of “the bottom line,” an idiom born from profit and loss financial statements. The goal of the bottom line is to be “in the black” – representing a net profit, instead of “in the red” which represents a net financial loss. Staff salaries and property costs have a significant financial impact on an organization’s bottom line.

Considering the cost-benefit of telecommuting, one can’t ignore the tax benefits for both sides. For example, a U.S. senator from Washington state has proposed a bill that will incentivize organizations to allow for telecommuting. Under the bill, companies would be offered a $500-per-employee tax credit for each staffer that works remotely a minimum of 12 days per month. With the average number of weekdays in a month at 22, this encourages businesses to push for staff to telecommute 50% of the month or more. The bill caps incentives at $20,000 per year, but that’s quite a financial incentive!

The plan is that this bill will lessen the impact of traffic by minimizing:

  • Gridlock
  • Gas consumption
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Vehicular accidents
  • Long-term impact on road conditions

The overall impact is immeasurable, but minimizing these issues is seen as a positive, incentivizing the first step. For Seattle alone, the average daily commute is 90 minutes due to a cheaper cost of living farther from the downtown area. Avoiding that commute twice each day provides the telecommuter 3 hours that they would have otherwise spent in traffic, resulting in an “extra” 15 hours every week.

Other states with traffic woes have passed similar legislation. Virginia implemented the Virginia Telework Expenses Tax Credit in 2013, and Georgia began testing tax incentives in 2007. Considering the gridlock in Northern Virginia, organizations with locations in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., quickly recognized the many advantages to incentivizing telework and took advantage of the financial benefits.

The Bottom Line

Switching to a telecommuting model can be a challenge. Whether staff works remotely only one day per week, or 100% of the time, letting employees work from home may not be the solution for some businesses. Every organization will undoubtedly weigh the benefits with the risks and make the decision that’s best for them.

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Ted Brown, ISD Manager Spokane Symphony and The Fox Theater Read More >>