Virtual (distributed) work environments refer to geographically distributed work teams, global project teams, interorganizational teams, and nontraditional work environments such as virtual organizations, satellite work centers, and telecommuting. The use of such distributed work environments in organizations is increasing rapidly. Many of the participants in such environments are mobile workers. The popularity of these environments is growing in direct relationship to the IT support for them. Wireless and wearable devices are one example, and the groupware tools described earlier are another. Due to the large number of people participating in virtual work, organizations are faced with problems of how to implement virtual work environments and how to use the IT support.
Telecommuting or teleworking, refers to an arrangement whereby employees can work at home, at the customer’s premises, in special work places, or while traveling, usually using a computer linked to their place of employment. Regular and overnight mail, special messengers, and fax typically have been used to support telecommuting, but they are relatively slow and expensive, and the Internet is gradually replacing them. Almost all groupware technologies can be used to support telecommuting.
The first telecommuters were typists and bookkeepers who simply used their homes as an office. Today a growing number of professionals do a significant portion of their work at home or on their road. Telecommuting, which is used by many corporations in large cities, is also appealing to small entrepreneurs. Many people work at home for their own businesses, using the Internet as a supportive tool.
Telecommuting can be used on a temporary basis. For example, during the 1996 Summer Olympics, Atlanta employers anticipated that the 750,000 additional cars of spectators would create a traffic nightmare. So, many Atlanta companies set up temporary data transmission network lines and told employees to work at home. Vendors cooperated: Symantec and U.S. Robotics offered companies free software to provide remote access to corporate networks. The Olympics offered many employees and companies their first taste of telecommuting.
Impact on Individuals and Organizations
Telecommuting has a number of potential advantages for employees, employers, and society. For example, the opportunity to work at home helps single parents with young children or other homebound people assume more responsible managerial positions in organizations.
However, telecommuting also has some potential disadvantages. The major disadvantages for the employees are increased feelings of isolation, loss of fringe benefits, lower pay (in some cases), no workplace visibility, with in turn the potential of slower promotions, and lack of socialization. The major disadvantages to employers are difficulties in supervising work, potential data security problems, training costs, and the high cost of equipping and maintaining telecommuters homes.
Companies and employees evidently have decided that the advantages of telecommuting outweigh the disadvantages: The use of telecommuting is on the increase. Some experts predict that in 10 to 15 years, 50 percent of all work will be done at home, on the road, or at the customer’s site.