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Virtually working Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002

Telecommuting has gained momentum in recent months as more companies successfully implement programs that increase both employee morale and productivity. Before you rush out to buy everyone a telephone and a computer, take a careful look at the complex issues surrounding a telecommuting program.

"Anybody that thinks of a telecommuting program needs to start by determining if it is a good business decision," says Richard Skinner, president of the Metro Atlanta Telecommuting Advisory Council. "Typically, that means it either saves you money or it will make you more money because of increased productivity. By and large, the ones doing this see the most gains in generating more productivity."

Employees involved in a telecommuting program don't lose time commuting to and from work. People tend to take the time from a physical commute and apply it to more productive uses. They also get away from many of the distractions of the office to focus on assigned tasks for long periods of time without interruption.

"We've found that the biggest obstacles is not the technology-which was the case 10 years ago-but management resistance at two different levels," says Skinner, who is also president of Clayton College & State University, which has a telecommuting program of its own. "CEOs and heads of companies have a real hard time believing people will work in an unsupervised environment. If they are not physically in the line of sight, they won't really know what they are doing. They really struggle with the idea.

"On the second level, we see a lot of resistance from managers of employees. They feel as if their jobs are threatened. If no one has to physically supervise them, why do they need me? It's an ironic situation because you really need them more."

They are needed to set tasks and performance standards, as well as monitoring the progress of projects or assignments.

"Some people don't want to telework," says Skinner. "Some people do not work effectively in remote locations."

That means you have to determine who is willing to do it, and which jobs can be done from home. One of the key ingredients for success is training.

"Some companies were just buying the person a computer and saying, 'Call me once in a while,'" says Bruce Holmes, the director of public safety at Clayton and the person who oversaw many of the details of the college's own telecommuting program. "Training gives the teleworkers tips and tools to use, and takes the burden off the manager."

Some workers find that less technology is better. One of the concerns from a business standpoint is the cost of extra phone lines, but some workers find that working without a phone is the best thing they can do to be more productive. It sounds amazing in these technology-avid times, but most telecommuters work from home an average of one or two days per week. After spending a day or two focusing on a project, the employee is back in the office to address problems or listen to workers.

"There's really a fear factor in all of this," notes Skinner. "On the part of the employees, they think if they go home and work, their work will not be recognized or valued. On the part of the managers, there is some fear of liability. What happens if they hurt themselves while working at home? It becomes a workers' comp issue. There is the question of how much technology do they need and will they actually work."

There is a generation gap when it comes to telecommuting. Older managers struggle with the idea that a remote worker can be productive. They still cling to the factory mentality.


Who can do it

Any business that has positions that are autonomous and don't require proximity to other employees can set up a telecommuting program.

"A small insurance firm can do it," says Skinner. "They can share documents electronically and even share them remotely. Any kind of industry that is information-rich can do this."

Besides apparently increasing productivity, telecommuting helps to recruit employees outside the traditional geographic base. An employee who might otherwise not consider the company because of the commute could become a viable candidate.

Telecommuting also offers flexible hours for those who tend to youth or elderly. (It should be noted that telecommuting is not a replacement for child care.)

"You can't do three jobs at once," says Skinner. "You can't take care of an elderly parent, watch a 2-year-old and do your work as a claims adjuster. It does give you the flexibility to be able to take your mother to a doctor's appointment, or to take your 2-year-old to preschool."

Traditionally, a person would work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. With telecommuting, the same person could start at 7:30 a.m. and work until 3 p.m. until the kids come home from school. The employee could then wait until a spouse came home to watch the kids, and resume working for a few hours in the evening.

Telecommuting, as real-estate costs continue to climb, will become a more viable option for smaller companies. That idea may prove acceptable by comparing the costs of having 60 people in a centralized office with the costs of maintaining a skeleton crew in a central location, with some employees telecommuting.

"Productivity is not a function of clocking in or out," says Skinner. "Companies need to move toward projects and focus on output. In either case, get out of the idea that sitting in an office for eight hours guarantees workers have done their tasks."

If telecommuting fits your company, don't try to do it alone. There are consultants and companies that can help, and most phone companies can provide advice as well. Be willing to try it on a pilot basis to learn where the problems are and correct them before doing it on a larger scale. The technology that is most vital may turn out to be different from what you originally thought.

"Sometimes a cardboard box to carry things between home and work is the only thing needed to succeed," says Holmes. "E-mail may turn out to be more important than a telephone. If e-mail is the foundation of communication in your company, you probably won't even notice a difference when they aren't there."

Checking out telecommuting options now may leave you better prepared for the future. Increasing environmental concerns in most major metropolitan areas are forcing telecommuting programs onto employers.

"Even if companies don't want to do it, they may find themselves having to do it," says Skinner. "You should try it now."