Todd Shryock

Tuesday, 26 November 2002 08:16

Transferring calls

Keeping 70 people connected during a transition to a new office is no easy task, but planning kept the employees of Marcus Thomas in touch with clients and technology during an office move.

In December 2001, Joe Blaha and his partners at the marketing communications firm knew they had nine months until they moved into their new office. But they also knew that only careful planning would ensure the phones and data systems were in place when employees arrived in September 2002.

The first step was deciding what was needed.

"We looked at what technology we have and what we could improve on," says Blaha, the company's CFO. "We asked ourselves, 'What are our business needs, our client needs, our vendor needs and our employee needs that aren't being met by the technology we have in place?' That led to the decision that now was a time to go with videoconferencing. It's something that had been on our plate for three to four years, but moving into a new space was now a good time to do it."

After talking to a consultant, the company also decided to upgrade its phone system before moving, because it was easier to move an existing system than to install a new one because it was changing to a different type of system. The company also decided a single T3 connection to the Internet wasn't cost-effective, but two T1 lines were -- one for videoconferencing, the rest for more routine data needs.

To handle emerging technology needs and keep maintenance easy, wires were run through troughs on top of the office walls.

"The IT consultant helped us put together a timeline that takes us from December to September, and in the process, bullet-pointed some key planning matters and marked some important dates on when we should order phone lines, find Internet service providers and put out bids for hardwires," says Blaha. "We knew we needed to identify companies that would be providing basic phone service early in the game. Typically, to get phone and data service installed, you'll want to give 45 days notice based on the backlog of installations."

The order was placed in March for a May installation (which got moved to June), and by July, the connectivity was in place and being tested.

"The second biggest component besides getting all the lines up was figuring out who's going to do the hardwire," says Blaha. "In the construction project, it was only the cabling contract that wasn't covered."

The cabling installer was selected in June, giving him more than two months to get familiar with the project before the installation took place. But even with this much lead time, things can go wrong.

"One of the lessons learned was that the communication between the contractor and the telecom contractor could have been better," says Blaha. "The telecom contractor should be kept intimately involved. We lost four working days that put us behind the curve because of miscommunication."

Blaha also recommends building in a week at the end of the project prior to occupancy for testing and debugging of the phone and computer systems.

"Make sure your internal IT folks are workhorses and grasp the vision of what you are trying to accomplish," says Blaha. "If they get that, they won't mind as much about working 16 hours a day, seven days in a row to get everything ready."

Blaha says the list the consultant provided at the beginning of the process proved invaluable.

"I probably referred to it three times a week over the last four months," he says. "The basic to-dos in execution didn't change from the original document. You have to have the challenges identified up front."

Even though Blaha says he doesn't understand some of the more technical tasks on the lists, he knew he needed to be checking with the people who did understand them to be sure they were done on time.

"Expect problems along the way," says Blaha. "Expect that time will get crunched at the end as occupancy is approaching. Some tasks require a lot of time, so try to build in extra time in your plan to accommodate the unexpected, because the unexpected will happen." How to reach: Marcus Thomas, (216) 292-4700

Friday, 30 August 2002 06:17

Wall-to-wall success

 

Imperial Home Decor Group is the world's largest designer, manufacturer and distributor of residential wall-covering products.

But that doesn't mean it stands still and enjoys its top spot. Rather, Imperial is focused on innovating to improve itself. Last year, Carolyn Resar, vice president of marketing and design, spearheaded a comprehensive initiative to apply Internet technology to all aspects of Imperial's business.

"As we approached the idea of the Internet, we did not want to just look at the traditional corporate type of site that featured product and focused on the company," says Resar. "We wanted to provide a useful tool to both the consumer and the retailer."

The result was a three-pronged approach.

* IHDG.com. The consumer site was designed to make it easy for consumers to select products. It also has tutorials to assist in the installation process and an e-commerce function. Consumers can select from a list of retailers and buy online.

The company designed the system to be more intuitive, allowing consumers to search for wall coverings with words and descriptions they understand rather than terms established by the wall coverings industry.

* IHDG.net. This site gives the company's retailers access to product search and sort capabilities, which provide assistance for consumer selections.

Dealers used to be limited to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, when customer service reps were on duty; now, they can place orders and check their status at any time. Retailers can also download marketing materials and other information they need to manage and grow their business.

* Web builder. "Since many of our specialty retailers are small businesses, they may not have the capital to invest in developing e-commerce capabilities," says Resar. "We developed a system that would allow them to sell our products online utilizing our shopping engine."

Each retailer site is customized to reflect its name, product offerings, history and pricing. Once completed, it is posted as a consumer option in the "buy online" area of the IHDG.com site.

The company added a fourth element for the media. Home editors for publications can access information such as room set photography and samples.

"We created this system because, as the leader, we believed strategically it was the right thing to do to grow our product category -- not because of retailer demand or competitive pressures," says Resar. How to reach: Imperial Home Dcor Group, (216) 3787-5204

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:09

Liability questions

Liability questions

What happens when an employee is hurt at a company outing?

By Todd Shryock

With the arrival of summer, many companies gear up for the annual summer picnic. It's supposed to be a fun event, a general morale booster where employees can get to know each other better.

But what if something bad happens? What if an employee is injured during the volleyball game and has to take time off of work? What if someone has too much to drink and causes an accident on the way home? Who's liable?

These are questions that deserve a serious look before an incident occurs. The answers can help you formulate a plan to avoid injuries and expensive lawsuits.


Who gets blamed?

There are a number of ways a business can end up losing when it comes to liability issues. If an employee breaks an ankle rounding third base, the company is probably the one to be called "out."

"There is the potential for workers' compensation exposure," says Michael Ossip, a partner in the labor and employment law section of the Philadelphia office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. "The law varies from state to state, but it's likely the company will be liable for this injury under workers' comp. The employer may argue that this was a voluntary, offsite event, and they were off duty. The courts have said it may have been 'voluntary,' but if the employees are encouraged to go, or it's suggested they go, then it falls within their course of employment."

The courts say these voluntary outings are directly beneficial to the company because they promote camaraderie and improve morale. As a result, if someone is injured they can bring a successful workers' compensation claim against the company.

Even more hazardous to a business is the consumption of alcohol at company events. A cooler full of beer might help everyone relax, but what if someone isn't responsible?

"If the company is serving beer, and someone gets inebriated and smashes up their car and causes injury to someone else, then the injured party is probably going to track down the deep pockets," notes Ossip.

Companies must be extremely careful if they choose to serve alcohol. The best thing to do is not serve it at all, but if you choose to do so, keep a careful watch on those drinking. You might try issuing drink tickets to each employee, which would limit the amount they could consume, or provide transportation to and from the event to lessen the risk.

There are some factors that can lessen an employer's exposure to lawsuit claims. If the event is held onsite during normal business hours, there's no argument that the event wasn't part of work. But if the event is held offsite, the employer can argue it wasn't required and the company is less liable for the conduct or behavior of its employees. While this won't completely protect a company, it can lessen the potential damages.

Another option is to let someone else, such as a restaurant, serve the alcohol. Again, this isn't absolute protection against any lawsuits, but it does move the company one step further from a potential accident.

"You really have to be careful if you're going to serve alcohol," Ossip warns again. "If you're going to serve, make sure it is served in moderation. Make sure there is a mechanism in place that if they are not in the proper state of mind, they don't get more. These events don't need to be canceled, because they are a great way of improving morale. Employers just need to realize it subjects them to liability and they need to use some common sense."


Other hazards

Another issue employers need to be aware of is the potential for sexual harassment. With events usually taking place outside the office, people tend to be more casual. The dress is relaxed, the attitude is more casual and when you mix in alcohol, people tend to do and say things they normally wouldn't. This behavior can make some employees uncomfortable and could lead to sexual harassment claims.

Employers should also be aware that a company-sponsored team in a softball or volleyball league can, in some circumstances, cause liability or workers' comp problems, depending on how much involvement the company takes in the team.

If a group of employees organizes a team on their own, there's not a lot of risk.

"If a company fields a team entry in an industrial league, pays for the hats, jerseys and softballs, then they are building steps that could expose them to liability," says Ossip. "If the injury occurs on the company field maintained behind the building, or all the executives play and employees feel pressured to play, the greater the risk. The more direction the company has in the process, the greater the chance it will be liable either for workers' comp or negligence."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:09

Explaining benefits

Explaining benefits

Help your employees understand their benefits before they need them.

By Todd Shryock

Taking the time, effort and money to put together a competitive benefits package isn't enough to keep the best employees.

Some may leave for another company because they think they're getting a better benefits package when, in fact, your company has a similar offering. The difference is, the other company took the time to fully explain all the details and options available, making their package seem like a better deal.

"Benefits are really important to employees," says Marybeth McNeil, human-resource manager for Schwartz Communications, a Waltham, Mass.-based public relations firm. "If they don't know what they have, it can hurt your employee-retention efforts. You really need to let them know how their benefits work. You shouldn't have employees calling from the doctor's office asking what their insurance covers."

McNeil uses a series of group meetings to make sure everyone is up to date on the benefits available, and what they need to do to use them properly.

"I find the best way is to get a small group of 10 or 15 people," she says. "The communication works better with a smaller group. Someone from the health plan, or a human-resources person, will run the meeting. This helps stimulate questions. It's not only a good time to explain them, but a good time to publicize them as well."

Meetings are limited to an hour, and are usually scheduled in the morning when attendees are most alert and attentive.

If the company is rolling out a new benefits plan, someone will talk about every aspect of the change, including which doctors are included and what the options are if an employee's particular doctor isn't on the new plan.

"I've tried communicating some aspects through mailings," says McNeil. "The thought is, you catch them at home, but less people read it than you would think."

McNeil supplements her group meetings with payroll inserts and bulletin board postings when necessary. There are also monthly 401(k) meetings for anyone who wants to attend.

Making sure your employees have a full understanding of their benefits can be good for the company, not only in employee recruiting and retention, but in productivity as well. Employees who are less distracted by benefits issues can concentrate more on their work, and employees who understand how to use their benefits stay healthy or get well and return to work sooner.

Towers Perrin, a Chicago-based benefits consulting firm, recommends a five-step process to formulate an effective communications program:

  • Define ideal perspectives. What perceptions do you want your employees to hold and which should not exist? For example, how should employees view their benefits relative to the competition?

  • Identify current perceptions. Ask the employees what their perceptions are and listen. Conduct surveys and create focus groups that can help target issues. Focus groups also provide opportunities to educate employees about other benefits and to test communication approaches before the formal program begins.

  • Evaluate the identified gaps. Once the employees have been interviewed, gaps will appear between the desired and actual perceptions. Evaluate those gaps and develop a strategy to narrow them. The strategy forms the basis of a work plan that includes a schedule, a list of communication materials required and designated responsibilities.

  • Implementation. By this point, 80 percent of the work is probably done. Test and retest everything including the messages and the organization of the information to further narrow any gaps. Be willing to make changes as needed.

  • Evaluate overall effectiveness. If interim success in meeting goals has been evaluated and refinements have been made along the way, there won't be any major surprises in the final evaluation.

Approaching this as a strategic process will shape employee perceptions to help meet the company's business goals, and it will also help employees meet their personal needs.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:08

Cloning the concept

Bob Tumolo opened a small Italian- ice business in 1984 to supplement his income as a Philadelphia firefighter. Italian ice is a popular treat made from real fruit and finely chopped ice. The concept was fairly simple: give people a fat-free treat made up of natural products that will cool them off during the hot summer months.

Rita's Italian Ice was so successful that Tumolo opened three more locations in the greater Philadelphia area. When customers kept asking if they could own one, Tumolo decided to franchise in 1989, with the first franchise units opening in 1990.

"It was a way to expand the concept with other people's money," notes Tumolo, who serves as the company's president. "Part of the reasoning behind expanding through franchising-even though it sounds simplistic-is we got tired of opening company-owned stores. It was getting unmanageable, because only family members knew the recipes."

Tumolo hired another company to handle the entire franchising process, from writing the marketing manuals to the legal work. The preparation took about six months, and shortly thereafter, Tumolo decided to take control of the process himself.

Franchising didn't change the business concept, but it did change the type of work Tumolo did.


A tough road

"The ironic part is I went into the seasonal ice business for the lifestyle, because it is essentially a six-month business," he says. "Now all my franchisees are enjoying that lifestyle and I'm working year-round. Franchising is really a different animal. It's gone from entrepreneurial to more of a corporate company."

While many entrepreneurs dream of franchising their concept and retiring to the good life, it rarely works out that way. Once franchising begins, franchisers must deal with a whole new set of problems.

"It's not that easy," says Ron Norelli, president and CEO of Norelli & Co., a Charlotte, N.C.-based management consulting firm for middle-market clients. "There is a lot of work at both ends of the franchising agreement. The real risk is what if it doesn't go right and the franchisees turn on you? There is a legal risk and a financial risk."

Even McDonald's faced a recent rebellion from franchisees regarding pricing strategy and market saturation.

It takes months to put a plan together covering every aspect of the business. How will the business concept be explained to franchisees? Will you grant exclusivity to each territory? What support will be made available and how will it be provided? How much capital is required?

"The entrepreneur needs to talk the idea through with competent advisers and other people in the industry," says Norelli. "The key for the franchiser is understanding the product or service, why it works and why it's different. Have they determined there is a market for their product or service elsewhere?"

Even after the groundwork is laid, there are more issues to be addressed with potential franchises. Background, reference and credit all have to be checked, along with where the financing will come from. What about site selection and store design? And while you're dealing with the new franchisees, who's running the original location?

"You better assume it won't run itself," advises Norelli. "The original business needs to have someone run it with the same degree of attention and care and commitment as the founder."

Tumolo found that running four stores and the franchising operation was too much.

"We kept the original four stores when we started franchising, but are now down to only the original location," says Tumolo.

A foundering original location will not generate a lot of interest in potential franchisees and may create trouble with existing owners if they perceive the business concept is failing.

"We took our growth slowly," notes Tumolo. "Our goal was 20 units in the first five years. My brother and I were inexperienced, and were learning as we went along."

The first franchise went to a friend, and only three opened in that first year. But as the concept continued to succeed and Tumolo streamlined the process, expansion increased to the current 40 to 50 units a year. There are currently more than 150 franchises in the chain.

Tumolo offers the following advice for potential franchisers:

  • Make sure you have plenty of capital. Capital was important when starting the business, and it's just as important for the franchising operation.

  • Hire experts in the industry. Get advice and objective opinions on how the franchise should operate and whether the concept is repeatable.

  • Plan policies and procedures carefully. "You have to document everything," says Tumolo. "The need for documentation is unbelievable. Something you're doing today, you might have to defend in court five years from now.

  • Choose markets carefully. Continued success can hinge on site location and brand awareness. "For us in particular, product identity in the outer markets can be a problem," says Tumolo. "For many concepts, you might go into a market where there is an unawareness of your brand. With Italian ice, there is sometimes an unawareness of the product. You have to choose your markets carefully."
Monday, 22 July 2002 10:07

Sound and vision

Just when you thought your PC couldn’t manage any more information, Lucent Technologies introduced Messaging 2000, a system that manages voice and fax messages.

Intended for small- and medium-size organizations, the system integrates a range of standard and optional voice- and fax-messaging capabilities into a computer telephone system. Companies can also choose to link their Messaging 2000 system to local area networks, allowing employees to access and manage their voice and fax messages visually through their PCs. This system gives small companies many of the same kinds of multimedia messaging tools generally used by larger firms.

The system is best for companies whose employees need to communicate often and who are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week..

Messaging 2000 includes an automated attendant that can route calls or page employees; a screening feature telling users the caller’s name, giving them the option to accept, reject or transfer the call; fax on demand; multilingual capabilities; and visual mailbox links.

Prices start at $9,500.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:06

Hot products

GoldMine Software Corp.
Pacific Palisades, Calif.
(800) 654-3526
$199
GoldMine offers a solid core of flexible contact management and extensive workgroup capabilities with sales force automation functionality. The program’s tools manage every facet of prospect/client information. It blends Internet e-mail and Web data capture, opportunity management, day and time scheduling, sales management and reporting to effectively manage any team. Features include customizable database structures, mass fax/mail merging capabilities, sales forecasting, branching telemarketing scripts, history tracking, pager support and remote data synchronization.


UF-770i Internet fax

Panasonic Office Products Co.
Secaucus, N.J.
(800) 742-8086
$4,695
The Panafax UF-770i is designed to reduce phone charges for organizations that send frequent global and long-distance faxes. It is a hardware-based solution that sends and receives documents, pictures, photos, handwritten messages and e-mail over the Internet by pressing a “one touch” key. Instead of entering a telephone number, the user dials in an e-mail address on the keypad. By sending Internet faxes, an organization saves on its phone bill because long-distance telephone charges are virtually eliminated.


HourTrack ’98

Vitrix Inc.
Phoenix, Ariz.
(800) 561-6366
$99
HourTrack ’98 is an automated time, attendance and employee scheduling system designed for small to medium-sized offices. It eliminates time clocks, manual time-sheet calculations and also makes manual data entry obsolete. With this software, employees can clock in using a PC, on a local area network, with a magnetic swipe card reader; or, for ultimate security, with a fingerprint ID unit. Employees can specify which project they will be working on when they clock in. Overtime, sick time, personal time and vacation time are calculated automatically.


PC Stamp

Neopost
Hayward, Calif.
(800) 624-7892
$10 monthly lease for hardware
Software not yet priced
PC Stamp produces stamps, represented as two-dimensional bar codes or “indicia,” to be printed by a standard PC as substitutes for going to the post office to buy stamps. It will certify up to 300 names and addresses per second over phone line or the Internet. About the size of a PC modem, the product attaches to a desktop computer through a standard port. After the user selects an icon on the screen, the computer prompts the user to input information including the address and the postage required. By attaching a digital scale to the system, the correct postage is automatically calculated by the PC without requiring user input.


Easy-Catalog

Software Design Associates
White Hall, Md.
(717) 235-3517
$349
Easy-Catalog has been specifically designed to enable small to midsized retailers to easily develop catalog style pages for their Websites. Each page can contain a picture of the product, a text description, pricing information and ordering instructions. It is based on a shop model to help the merchant set up his or her Website the same way a store or printed catalog would be organized. The product requires no previous programming experience.


Microsoft Publisher 98

Microsoft
Redmond, Wash.
(800) 426-9400
$90
Microsoft Publisher makes personal publishing fast and easy through the use of automated, intelligent design and design elements. Publisher goes beyond making desktop publishing easy to learn and use by automating the design process itself, giving users help and guidance during every stage. Publisher has more than 60 color schemes preselected to look good together, allowing users to find one that fits their identity. AutoConvert will take a finished product, such as a brochure, and convert the design elements to another format, such as a newsletter or even a Website. Other features include automatic copy-fitting, logo creation help, and design wizards.


PR Now

Bawlmer Communications Inc.
Baltimore, Md.
(888) 807-7669
$95
PR Now is a public relations audio and guidebook package that details the creative and practical steps involved in helping small businesses work with the media to secure print exposure. The product explores what is newsworthy; how stories can be submitted and followed up; when story timing has the greatest impact; and what constitutes an honest and ethical approach. A business can also learn to use the results from print coverage. The majority of small-business owners do not realize the influence local, regional and trade publications have on those who would use their businesses.


LinXpeed Pro

Virtual Access
Fairfax, Va.
(703) 934-6180
Starts at $579
This unique technology provides a new-market opportunity for service providers to deliver managed customer premise equipment to businesses seeking high-speed voice and data services. LinXpeed Pro’s unique autoconfiguring Activating technology allows network suppliers to automatically install and remotely manage the equipment, providing managed high-speed connectivity services to small and midsize companies and telecommuters. Once the service provider has installed an ISDN line, the customer simply connects two cables, plugs in the equipment, and turns on the power. The Active Router then automatically places a call to the Activator and requests its software and configuration from the service provider. When the software has been downloaded and automatically installed, the unit is operational.
Monday, 22 July 2002 10:06

Business in a box

Ever since the advent of the desktop computer, entrepreneurs have dreamed of being able to take all their information on the road.

Oh, sure, someone came up with the idea of a laptop, a slightly smaller version of what was sitting back in the office, but early models were so unwieldy, it would have been easier to simply transport the desktop PC to the client’s office.

The newest notebooks, although powerful and sleek, bring with them disadvantages. The size still demands a specially padded carrying case, adding one more piece of luggage to the carry-on pile that has to be lugged through airports and crowded commuter flights. Clients can frown upon their use, because it always seems as if you’re either hiding something behind that screen, or worse, not paying attention to what they’re saying because you’re trying to find a particular file.

So the Personal Digital Assistant came on the scene to fill this niche. The idea was to provide businesspeople with only the basic necessities of computer use in a small package that wouldn’t be any more intimidating than a day-planner.

“They are really being used now as complements to PCs,” says Tom Rhinelander, an analyst with Forrester, a Cambridge, Mass.-based technology research firm. “It allows the users to take information with them at all times.”

While early PDAs contained little more than electronic calendars, address books and some basic memo capabilities, the new generation of devices carries many of the same capabilities as their desktop counterparts.

Software programmers are designing solutions that allow ease of use and the quick transfer of information. It is now possible to have the specs on your latest product along with sales statistics and production costs that were input on your PC, to be downloaded into your PDA for easy access during meetings.

“One program is now able to scrape headlines or stories from say, your industry trade magazine Website, and then transfer that to your PDA so you can read it on the road,” says Rhinelander.

Of course you cannot do a PowerPoint presentation like you could on a newer notebook computer, but you can’t put the notebook in your coat pocket either.

Most of the units operate on two AA batteries, yielding as much of 20 hours of operating time. Rechargeable batteries are also available with most brands, with operating limits of 12 hours to 15 hours of use, depending on the type of work being done.

Most also feature an “instant on,” meaning there is no long boot-up time. You simply turn it on just like you would a calculator, and it’s ready to go.

PDAs are not meant to be stand-alone units, but rather mobile partners to a desktop system. Synchronization of information is done either through direct connection to the PC or the use of a docking cradle.


Two ways of thinking

There are basically two major operating platforms in the PDA market:

• Windows CE, which is basically a scaled-down version of Windows 95 that makes the PDA more like a notebook.

• Palm OS, the operating system of the popular PalmPilot PDA, which acts more like a personal organizer with notebooklike software available as add-ons.

“The value of these devices hasn’t really been tapped yet,” notes Rhinelander. “Users want the synchronization between the devices and the PC to be a simple point and click, and that’s what we’re seeing. It’s not hard for companies to hook into this technology. Explore it and figure out where you can go with it.”


Technology with a twist

When the Apple Newton hit the market, one of its featured attributes was the ability to recognize handwriting. But like any venture that relies on a machine to interpret human intentions, the results can be bizarre. Here are a few misspellings by the Newton culled from the Newton Misspellings Page at: www.HTCSI.isc.rit.edu/newton

  • Phrase entered: Newton’s translation

  • Pizza Hut: Berger Fort

  • the Kramers got robbed last night: the Dinosaurs here rolled last night

  • I love you all: I hate your balls

  • application: AeroMexico

  • wedding: head sting

  • Write Beth a check (Beth is ex-wife): Write Bum a check

  • Microsoft: monopoly

  • more convenient: mice overhaul

  • In the summer, I’m a lazy bum: In the sunny, I’m a Jazz burn

If you’re one of the 1 million or so owners of a 3Com PalmPilot, we’ve finally discovered the ultimate program to increase your productivity...on the golf course.

IntelliGolf is a program that tallies scores for up to four golfers in various wagering games, including Skins, Stroke, Stableford, Greenies and others. It also tracks various statistics and keeps track of how much money you’ve won or lost. With the birdie edition, users can get worldwide Internet course downloads, score card printing, performance statistics and round archival.

You can even upload course information (yardage, par rating, etc.) to IntelliGolf’s Internet server for all Birdie golfers to share.

For more information, go to www.intelligolf.com.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:05

Virtually working

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."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:05

Shiftwork blues

Shiftwork has become a common practice in today's business world. Whether it's a 24-hour operation at a factory or a two-shift rotation at a retail outlet, more employees are expected to work nontraditional hours.

But is the schedule costing you more in absenteeism, accidents and lower productivity than it should be?

"Shiftwork can really have detrimental effects if it is done poorly," warns Ed Coburn, publisher of the Working Nights newsletter. "In the last 15 years or so, scientists have really developed an understanding of the physiological effects and what can be done about it. If it is done well, there doesn't have to be any significant effects on job performance."


Shift schedules that work

The basic rule of rotating shifts is that they should rotate forward: Work the day shift, then the evening shift, then nights. The body is better able to adapt to a forward rotation, though it's still fairly common to find companies that rotate shifts backward.

"Employees often prefer a backward rotation, because it gives them an extra eight hours between days off," says Coburn. "Changing a popular schedule can be very difficult and cause labor-relations nightmares."

Another common mistake is having a time and pay policy in which retirement pay is based on the average of the last three years of take-home pay. Just before retirement, older workers bulk up on overtime and work late shifts to increase their pay.

"These workers are not well suited for this duty," notes Coburn. "As you age, you become less flexible, and shiftwork becomes harder to do. To have this kind of policy isn't taking into consideration the health and safety impact. It may cause an at-risk population to be fatigued at work."

Many shiftworkers also have digestive problems. This is caused by having meals at times when the body is not prepared to eat. The human body has hundreds of circadian rhythms that regulate when you are tired and when you are ready to eat, among other things.

"When you get past 10:30 or 11 p.m., our stomachs shut down," says Coburn. "Our body temperatures starts falling and, as a result, our bodies don't digest well in the middle of the night."

Fat, greasy foods are hard to digest, and should be avoided late at night. But these are the kinds of foods most readily available to shiftworkers-pizza, cheeseburgers and fries, vending-machine fare and carbonated drinks. The ulcer rates for shiftworkers are higher than for other employees.


Beating the clock

There are a number of countermeasures to reduce the negative effects of shiftwork. The most important step to take is to educate your supervisors about what impact shiftwork may have so they know what signs to look for and what problems are common. It also has to be a cooperative effort between the employer and the employees, and education efforts can help everyone.

"You can implement excellent policies, but if employees are only getting three hours of sleep, or staying up too late, then whatever the company does will be subverted," notes Coburn "There are individual measures that can be taken to improve not only health and safety, but the quality of life. Family communication can be a problem even when you're off the job, because when you get home, everyone is asleep or at school. Educating people is an important first step."

Employers should address issues such as eating, when to sleep, how to sleep, and communicating better with family members.

"When we refer to shiftworker lifestyle training, we don't mean it in a 'Big Brother' way," says Coburn. "Shiftwork is not just a job, there's a lifestyle that goes along with it. Companies train employees to learn how to handle the demands of the job, but one of the biggest demands is modifying their lifestyle. Few companies pay attention to that."

Employers often make the mistake of assuming that a new schedule will fix any problems, but the solution lies more in how you go about dealing with the issues that arise from the schedule rather than the schedule itself.

For more information, go to www.shiftwork.com or www.cdc.gov/niosh.



Reducing fatigue and stress

According to a the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 15.5 million people in the United States work nontraditional hours such as evenings, nights and rotating shifts.

Individuals who perform shiftwork can experience a disruption of the body's internal clock, resulting in sleep loss. Excessive lack of sleep can make it difficult for employees to concentrate, increasing the possibility of error or job-related injury. Digestive problems and stress are also part of the picture.

NIOSH suggests the following:

  • As appropriate, consider altering shiftwork schedules, such as having permanent night shifts, avoiding rapid shift changes and adjusting the shift duration to the workload. When changing an employee's work schedule, aspects of the worker's job and home life should be considered.

  • Schedule heavy or demanding work at times when workers are most alert or at peak performance. The use of bright lights can enhance alertness.

  • Provide training or awareness programs for new shiftworkers and ensure that health care and counseling services are available to employees. Training should encompass methods for employees to cope with adjusting to shiftwork, such as establishing a sleep routine, and affirming the importance of proper exercise, diet and relaxation routines to minimize stress.