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Vision 2030: Telecommuting brings new skills for new world

Workers willing to learn ‘knowledge-based’ skills can find work-from-home employment

Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
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Ravi S. Gajendran

For some teachers, this job might sound heavenly:

“Hiring K-5 teacher to manage and coordinate instructional sessions with online students. Plan curriculum, monitor students’ progress, conference with parents, and report grades. Previous teaching exp. is desired. Part-time. Remote.”

So, all the benefits of molding small minds without the hassle of snotty noses and separation anxiety. And no need to change out of your jammies.

Or maybe you’re a laid-off factory worker, with longtime ties to the area, close friends and family, and kids in a school system you really like. You don’t want to pack up and leave, but you can’t find a job in your home town.

There is a solution, if you’re willing to learn some new skills.

It’s all part of the brave new world of telecommuting – doing a job that used to require a trip to the office while sitting at home at your computer. On your sun deck. In your grubby sweatpants, if you like.

It’s a growing trend.

“Telecommuting is an opportunity to reskill or retool folks who are moving from one occupation to another,” from a farm-based or industrial backround, say, to informational services, said Ravi S. Gajendran, a University of Illinois professor of business administration who has studied and published research on flexible work arrangements.

At the moment, you don’t hear much about local businesses with work-from-home policies, said Barb Majeski, manager of Manpower employment agencies in Sterling and Dixon, and it’s hard to predict exactly how popular such jobs will become locally over the next few decades.

“I’ve heard a lot about it, but I haven’t seen it so much in our area,” she said. “It’s more in larger areas with larger corporations.”

That might be because some of the things that make telecommuting attractive – long, costly commutes that take away from family time and require lengthy, expensive child-care arrangements – are more likely in urban areas, Gajendran said.

In the Sauk Valley, a long commute might be 15 or 30 minutes, and often grandparents or other family members are around to provide support, he said.

It’s also hard right now to find area people with those kinds of skills, Majeski said.

Still, the Sauk Valley “is as good a candidate as anywhere in the Untied States” to grow such workers: All you need are people willing to learn the skills needed by “knowledge-based” industries such as finance, insurance, or information technology. Those companies are where telecommuting is seeing the most growth, Gajendran said.

An estimated 17 million employees telecommuted in 2010, according a 2011 World at Work survey. Most worked from home at least one day a month.

The places to look for such jobs? Big cities such as Chicago, Des Moines or Iowa City are more likely to have large, flex-friendly companies, he said.

Do a Google search for telecommuting jobs in Illinois, and one of the sites that pops up is FlexJobs, the slogan for which is “Life is flexible ... is your job?” (That’s where the above-mentioned online teacher ad was found.)

The benefits of telecommuting? It can improve autonomy, job satisfaction and performance, and reduce stress and work-family conflict, Gajendran’s research found.

In fact, aside from one exception, “there are no significant negative relational outcomes associated with telecommuting,” he said.

That one exception? “High-intensity” telecommuting – working from home all or most of the time – can be isolating.

“When employees telecommute only one or two days a week, they still have ample opportunities for rich, face-to-face interactions with their in-office colleagues during the rest of the week,” Gajendran said in a U of I article (illinois.edu/lb/article/72/71871). “This allows them to create strong relationships with their teammates based on trust and friendship.

“Research suggests that employees who have strong bonds with one another are able to use electronic communication media such as email and telephone to work together more effectively than relative strangers. That is, effective electronic communication depends on a solid foundation of rich face-to-face interaction.

“Low-intensity telecommuters can thus maintain effectiveness even when they work from home precisely because they also spend time working face-to-face with colleagues,” he said in the article.

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