By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Telecommuting has been possible for a number of years, but not until recently has telecommuting been feasible on a large scale. As knowledge workers make up a greater portion of the workforce, working from the office desk has become less of a necessity. On top of that, many of today’s families include parents who are both part of the workforce. These employees are growing to expect workplace flexibility in greater numbers.

We’ve recently discussed how, with the potentially rebounding economy, workers are going to expect more from their employees in 2010. Implementing a flexible work environment (or improving your company’s current telecommuting policy) is one way to retain your star employees.

More Productivity, More Options

As a leading producer of telecommuting technology, it makes sense that Cisco would be a leader in implementing the technology at its own offices.

Rami Mazid, vice president, Global Client Services and Operations at Cisco explained,

“In the age of a global market, time and distance separates people and workspaces. Cisco has long recognized that telecommuting and collaborative technologies are effective in breaking down separation barriers and enabling the transition to the borderless enterprise. In addition, a properly executed program for telecommuting can be extremely effective at unlocking employee potential by increasing work-life balance, productivity and overall satisfaction.”

In fact, according to a Huffington Post article, “more that half of [Cisco’s] ‘next-generation workforce’ communicate and collaborate at a distance from Cisco HQ.” And furthermore, 69% of the these workers reported higher productivity outside the office and 75% reported more timely work. About the same number reported higher quality work as well.

What Today’s Workers Want

In a recent Forbes article, Sarah Sorenson explained that the female labor force is expected to outpace male workers in the next few years. This is based on the fact that more women than men are earning bachelor’s degrees, and have been for some time.

Because much of the heavy work of parenting traditionally falls on women, Sorenson says women can benefit more from the flexibility of the digital workplace than men. By showing an openness to flexibility, employers will have a better chance at retaining this large segment of the workforce.

And in a New York Times piece, Virginia Heffernan writes that the home workplace means more than flexibility for working mothers. It is just as much a feminist issue. She explains:

“Our vaunted verbal skills come through just fine in instant messaging, and we get to skip the stuff that requires broad shoulders, a baritone and understanding of wolf packs: the dread face-to-face interactions. Sure, all those deals that were supposed to go down on the golf course or at the urinal — they probably still happen there. But now, if we so choose, we have the means to text-pester the golfers all the livelong day. Show them which colleague will not be ignored!”

“I submit, in all seriousness, that women have benefited more (even) than men by telecommuting technology. Downloading school forms, pumping breast milk, tending to a sick kid, loading up the crockpot, straightening the kitchen — all this can be done with a BlackBerry in hand. None of this can be done — done well, anyway — at the office.”

But, as gender norms evolve, and men express a desire to spend more time with their families, it’s important not to downplay the benefits men can receive from the flexible workplace as well. More work flexibility means a better deal for all parents – especially the younger, tech-savvy ones.

In a recent interview, Andrea Levitt, author and career columnist for the Wall Street Journal explained: “Some companies balk at telecommuting, but men and women are demanding flexibility, especially if you have young children. In the next five to 10 years, the ‘millennials,’ the generation born starting in 1978, will move into prime child-bearing age. They’ll need this flexibility, and companies will have to give it them.”

The Next Step: Digitizing Your Workplace

According to a recent Forrester Research study, information workers don’t want to be chained to the office, but connected to it via technology. In his ComputerWorld article, Thomas Wailgun explains, “The information workers (or “iWorkers”) surveyed want more flexible work hours (two-thirds of respondents said so) and a third want to work from home at least occasionally.”

Furthermore, as Sorenson writes, “Our business leaders of tomorrow… interact with the network and new media in ways that are second nature to them. Organizations must achieve a digital sophistication that truly embraces new information technologies to ensure the next generation is able to drive the success of the business.”

With as many as 63 million Americans expected to be teleworking by 2016, shouldn’t your company be at the forefront of the trend, rather than lag behind?

Sorenson writes, “The good news is that most leading organizations have already started evolving their policies and workplace environments to support this global, diverse, digital workforce. The bad news is that very few, if any, have gone far or fast enough.”

Businesses need to evolve their digital workplace policies to keep up with the workforce. And the businesses that that work now to implement plans for the future are the ones that will succeed in the long run.