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This article looks at the evolution of telework in the United States as well as the benefits and potential problems associated with this growing phenomenon. One of these issues, effective leadership of teleworkers, is the focus of the article. The authors suggest that Situational Leadership[TM], a leadership model which has been in use since the late 1960s, is an appropriate tool for leaders to use in successfully influencing their off-site workers. Situational Leadership[TM] is explained and applied to a variety of telecommuting scenarios.
In the late 1800s, the nature of work changed drastically as Americans began the move from an agricultural society to a manufacturing society. Alvin Toffler's second wave was characterized by the growth of urban areas and the disassociation of workers from the final product. (1991) Owner-operators and then a class of supervisor-leaders found themselves challenged to encourage productivity from large numbers of employees who had no ownership in the organization. Leadership, previously mostly a concern of governments and the military, became a far more common need in the growing industrial economy.
Now, in the first years of the 21st century, America finds itself well along in the transition to Toffler's third wave, the post-industrial society characterized by knowledge workers who are far more educated and professional than their forebearers. Many of these workers are deserting the traditional factory or office and working in non-traditional environments such as hotel rooms and home offices. Can 20th century leadership techniques work in this age of the teleworker or is a drastic reconceptualization of leadership needed?
This article posits that one time-honored leadership model, Situational Leadership[TM], can be effectively applied by leaders who work with teleworkers of all types. First, however, the authors look at the definition and evolution of telework in the United States and then investigate the benefits and challenges associated with this relatively new phenomenon.
Telecommuting, telework and teleworking are terms used somewhat interchangeably. Telecommuting involves working at one's home or another location where employees use computers and communication technology to communicate with the main office, supervisors, co-workers, and customers. (Gainey et. al, 1999) Telecommuting occurs whenever an employee is paid for work done at an alternative worksite and total commuting time is thereby reduced. (Mariani, 2000) This does not, however, include self-employed persons or those employees who feel it necessary to take work home with them on a regular basis. An alternative worksite can be defined as a person's home and/or office, a satellite office, or a telecenter. A telecenter is a satellite office shared by more than one employer. While it does not appear to be a telecommuting situation, it is. Employees may only have to commute a shorter distance than they would otherwise.
The International Telework Association and Council prefers the term "telework" ITAC cautions that much of the current literature refers to telecommuters as those who "work at home during the day for part or all of the work week instead of going to the office." (ITAC, 2001, 1) ITAC goes on to define telework:
Telework is a much broader term that means using telecommunications to work wherever you need to in order to satisfy client needs; whether it be from a home office, telework center, satellite office, a client's office, an airport lounge, a hotel room, the local Starbucks, or from your office to a colleague 10 floors down in the same building--wherever. (ITAC, 2001, 1)
For purposes of this paper, the authors will use these terms interchangeably to mean anyone who, with full approval of the employer, regularly conducts business from a nontraditional office location.
Evolution of Telework
The first telecommuter on record was a Boston bank president who installed a phone line between his bank and home in 1877. (Langhoff, 1996) What allowed this evolution from this humble beginning to our current state of affairs has been the drastic evolution in computer technology. Home computers today are about 80 percent faster than the original IBM PC and their price dropped roughly 40 percent during the 1990s. That, combined with the developments in the world wide web, video conferencing, groupware, digital phones, and satellite communications, have made virtual offices more feasible and popular. (Bredin, 1996) Some home offices today are probably more technologically capable than many corporate offices were ten years ago. In a country where in 2000, fifty-one percent of all households had home computers, this provides the opportunity for a dramatic shift in work dynamics. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001) Such is the case in the United States today. Telecommuting, while still in its infancy, has already drastically changed businesses all over the world. While employers can now offer a new way for employees to work and thus increase their productivity, as well as tap into never before accessible labor resources, they must also change old attitudes and break down outdated management practices to capitalize on this new resource.
By 1996, people who telecommuted in some fashion made up about ten percent of the U. S. workforce. (Langhoff, 1996). These telecommuting …