Earlier in my career, when I worked within the communications department of a major insurance carrier in Philadelphia, I was tasked with contacting employees receiving “employee of the month” awards to talk about their aspirations and their roles within the company, and provide a write-up for the corporate newsletter.

One month, I had the opportunity to speak with a manager in the claims management department who had been honored, and I was taken away by her dedication. She worked sometimes until 9:00 or 10:00 at night on her casework, refusing to leave any customers in limbo for that day. In my write-up, I lauded this dedication, the willingness of this manager to work 12-to-14-hour days to get the job done.

My supervisor, the company's vice president of communications, did not agree with this assessment, and canned the article. Why? Because, she told me, running a story about someone working 14-hour days sends the wrong message, implying it's okay that employees give up their personal lives this way.  Her argument made a lot of sense.

Which brings us to the current day, with the rise of the virtual workplace. Thanks to technology — from laptops to tablets to smartphones — our work lives have bled into our personal lives in a profound way. We have many employees telecommuting — that claims manager I spoke with may now be a telecommuter as well — and this further blurs the line between work and home.

Telecommuting actually seems to have the opposite effect, however, of providing relief to employees. A recent survey of knowledge workers by PGi, for example, finds that telecommuting employees see improvements in stress level (82 percent), morale (80 percent), productivity (70 percent) and absenteeism (69 percent). Overall, PGi's survey showed that telecommuting is widespread among businesses with knowledge workers.

Many other surveys I have seen in recent years also say the same thing — that telecommuting and, by extension, virtual work, is a positive force for both employers and employees. But aren't there plenty of cases of virtual employees crossing that work/life boundary, perhaps staying glued to their screens well into the evening hours? 

The difference may be the phenomenon of “bursty” productivity. That is, no one is revving at 100 percent all day long, particularly between 9 and 5. Rather, everybody has their bursts of productivity, which may vary from individual to individual. As long as they are not being held to a 9-to-5 schedule, independent, virtual workers may be far more productive than the office-bound employees for that reason. They have the flexibility to get things done at the time that works best for them. They may be out in the morning attending to personal things, but operating at 150 percent later in the afternoon or evening.

In a way, there's a productivity “surplus” that exists in every workforce, and the 9-to-5 offices of yore were not likely capturing this surplus. Today's virtual work environments are better able to capture the surplus. And still provide the same dedicated customer service as that manager I spoke with many years back.

Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.

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