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part one: telecommuting

When it comes to workplace comfort, nothing beats working in your underwear.

In recent years, a number of companies have bought into the concept of telecommuting – basically, letting your employees working without having to come into the office.

Cheap and ubiquitous hardware and software – everything from iPads to Skype – have made it easier to set up meetings, give presentations and gain access to company documents from just about anywhere.

In this series, we look at the pros and cons of instituting a telecommuting policy for small and medium-sized businesses.

Although a lot of large companies have some sort of work-from-home program, the concept is still largely absent from many smaller workplaces.

Nonetheless, telecommuting is catching on. A Microsoft Corp. survey of 4,500 U.S. information workers found that more than half worked for companies that had a formal "telework" policy. A separate survey from Staples Inc .found that the vast majority of workers who telecommute enjoy the experience, saying it makes it much easier to, among other things, to maintain work-life balance.

The ability to implement telecommuting at most workplaces – even small businesses – has skyrocketed in recent years.

At the high end, companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. have put millions of dollars into developing state-of-the-art video-conferencing tools that employ multiple screens, cameras and microphones to virtually recreate meetings of just about any size.

However many of those tools might be too expensive for small and medium-sized business owners.

Still, the ubiquity of camera-enabled tablets (including units from Cisco, Research In Motion Ltd., Motorola Inc. and, of course, Apple Inc.) means employees can easily set up virtual face-to-face meetings not just from the home, but from pretty much anywhere.

For employers, there are several advantages and disadvantages to implementing a telework policy.

Most research shows employees are generally happier working from home. Indeed, a Cisco survey last year found that more than 60 per cent of employees surveyed were willing to work for less pay if they had a little more flexibility in working from home.

And despite the somewhat-persistent image of an underwear-clad employee taking advantage of a work-from-home policy to slack off, most research suggests telecommuting workers are slightly more productive.

But there are downsides to telecommuting.

For one thing, it represents a cataclysmic change to what has been the default mode of office work for decades: Come into the office, work, then leave the office.

Even if telecommuting comes with plenty of advantages, it's still going to be difficult for many employers to embrace it immediately.

And despite what any survey says, there's a persistent perception in many workplaces that if you're not in the office, you're not working.

Additionally, some businesses may have concerns about the security risks that come with telecommuting.

Whereas security settings can easily be standardized on all workplace computers, it's more difficult to ensure that an employee's home machine is as secure.

In response to such concerns, a number of software-makers have developed tools to secure the connection between a business's intranet and outside machines.

Ultimately, however, there may be many more reasons to embrace telecommuting than to reject it.

The advantages may be harder to quantify – everything from healthier work-life balance to a happier workforce to fewer traffic jams – but they are real.

This series continues next Thursday.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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