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Engineers Are Working the Remote

By Mike Hudspeth

Engineers Are Working the Remote
Flexibility is one advantage to telecommuting. Data source: Dailywireless.com

I heard an interesting statistic recently that got me thinking. Someone I know said that more than 100 million Americans work remotely. That number sounded a bit high to me. The last U.S. Census data I’ve seen said there are slightly more than 300 million Americans. So that would be just about one third, or one out of every three people in America working remotely.

The next thing I thought was what does that mean, working remotely? Is that working from home? Does it include remote offices? Do those people do it all the time, or just part of the time? Maybe all of the above.

As I delved into the statistic, I found some fascinating factoids. It seems that while almost 50 million American workers (roughly 40% of the working population) could work away from a traditional office, only 0.5% of them actually say they do.

Defining the Concept
Many Americans work out of their homes. That generally means they have an office set up in their home in which they spend a lot of hours, either online, on the phone or both. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s report, “Home-Based Workers in the United States: 1999-2005,” there were more than 11 million home workers in the U.S. in 2005—half of whom make more than $75,000 a year. The mean monthly earnings of all home workers was somewhat lower, however, at around $2,400/month.

Of course, those who made more money also worked more hours—11 or more hours a day. But though they put in longer hours than their more traditional brethren, they reported increased flexibility. Some other fast facts: Almost a quarter of home-based workers reported their hours varied. Home-based workers make up more than 8% of the American workforce. There are just slightly more female home-based workers (51%) than male. The vast majority of home-based workers are between the ages of 35 and 64. And while nearly half (47%) of home-based workers have college degrees, the numbers fall off sharply with less education.

With the exception of the call center industry, there aren’t many companies that employ large numbers of home-based workers. But when companies do allow employees to work from home, they view it as an employee benefit—not something that is overly beneficial for the business.

The Remote Office
Probably the most common remote working alternative is the branch office. In today’s environment, the business you walk into or call is not likely to be the home office. The branch office is a great way to capitalize on talent that may be local to a particular city or region. Is your customer the U.S. Army? Doesn’t it make sense to locate next to a base where it’s convenient to interact with them? Your manufacturing plant has been where it’s at forever, and to relocate it would be cost-prohibitive. What do you do? Open a branch office.

The local community benefits because of the added jobs. The company benefits because of the increased talent pool and efficiency of proximity. The employee benefits, obviously, because he or she doesn’t have to pull up stakes and move.

Of course, there will be a certain cost involved. The company will need to finance the office. Equipment will need to either be purchased or shipped to the location. Secure lines of communication will need to be set up. Some duplication of function will be unavoidable, as every location will have common needs that just aren’t well supplied over long distances.

Still, there are many tools a company can use to overcome distance.

John Preston, a mechanical engineer with Baton Rouge, LA-based The Shaw Group, is based in Charlotte, NC. He manages a geographically dispersed team of engineers with locations in North Carolina, Colorado and Texas. Preston explains that web-based networking helps him work with offices across the United States. Corporate data can be accessed over the company intranet, thus ensuring that everyone is working with the latest information.

The Shaw Group uses Knovel software to access technical data. It ensures everyone is looking at the same information. They also use products like Microsoft Office’s Live Meeting for drawing review, and EMC Software’s Documentum for data storage and retrieval.

When you are working with a dispersed work force, “you have to be very intentional about talking to team members,” Preston says. “Technique variation is an issue.”
Everyone has their own way of doing things. To succeed, your company has to be a team. That means everyone must play by the same rules. And as Preston points out, “time zones cause extra focus.”

When your company doesn’t want to go to the expense of a branch location but is willing to allow you to work remotely, they may opt for the office park, or Telework Center. This is a place where you have a traditional office space to which you can go. It has all the hook-ups and equipment needed to conduct business. Many people prefer it because of the office atmosphere. The commute to an office park is usually shorter than to an out-of-town corporate headquarters. That makes it an attractive alternative to relocation should a company’s talent and place of business not coincide.

Last, but not least, there are lots of people who don’t work solely out of an office or their homes. Almost 20 million people are occasional telecommuters. Wherever they can get an Internet connection or cell signal is their office: home, office, airport, car or coffee shop, they can do business anywhere. They are the true “road warriors.”

In the computer world, it’s a given that distributed networks are the best way to go. For an engineering team, the remote office can offer great benefits and potential dangers. Employees must exercise greater discipline, but gain greater flexibility. Companies must resolve security and trust issues, but realize competitive advantage and cost savings. And the customer can find better access to the services they want. That makes for a powerful win-win-win situation.

More Info:
Knovel
EMC
Microsoft
The Shaw Group

Pros and Cons of Working Remotely
One major advantage to working from home is the commute—or lack thereof. How many hours during the week do you spend sitting in rush-hour traffic just trying to get to and from your office? If you’re like most Americans, you’re alone in your car. That uses up a lot of time, gasoline, money and patience. Think how much better you’d feel rolling out of bed, dressing more comfortably, and having all that extra time to get ready to tackle the world.

And unless you have a webcam watching you, you can even work in the stereotypical bathrobe and slippers. Because you have a completely different work environment at home, you can be more relaxed. That’s good for your concentration.

Telecommuting is also cheaper for the worker because you aren’t burning the money in your gas tank and putting yourself at risk in traffic. It’s cheaper for companies because they don’t have to run the lights and equipment in your office. It’s more efficient and greener for the environment (less pollution). What’s not to love?
Well … every coin has a flip side, and this one is no different. There are distinct disadvantages to working from home.

First and foremost, there are more distractions in the home, especially if you have others in the house. During school hours you may be by yourself, but what about when the family is at home (summer vacation, school holidays and the ever-popular snow days)? Kids are perhaps the greatest gift you can have in your home, but let’s face it, they are noisy. They like to run and jump. They like to play and laugh. They like to watch TV—usually with the volume turned up too loud. These habits are not conducive to your concentration.

And it’s not just the kids. The “spousal unit” will frequently come a-knockin’ to ask you to take care of something around the house. If you were at the office, it would be unthinkable to ask you to drop what you’re doing and come home to take out the trash or reach up to that high shelf in the closet. But since you are already there… and you’re just sitting at your desk… it won’t really take you that long, anyway.

One important disadvantage to working from home is communication. Face-to-face communication is a very important part of almost every business, either between you and your team or you and your customers.


Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, illustrator, and author who has been using CAD and design products for more than 20 years. He is DE’s expert in ID, design, rapid prototyping, and surfacing and solid modeling. Contact him via de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Mike Hudspeth

Mike Hudspeth is a Desktop Engineering contributor.