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Doing its homework Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

Like a lot of young companies in the technology segment, Cerebellum Software offers a telecommuting option for its employees.

More than 10 percent of its 65-person work force telecommutes on a regular basis, and the company maintains a highly flexible attitude toward work schedules and the occasional work-at-home day to suit employees' needs. One employee lives and works in Seattle.

Yet the company has found that, while telecommuting works as a retention and recruitment tool and it has the communications infrastructure to support its employees, there's more to telework than having the right technology.

"I'm a big believer in face-to-face communications to build relationships and get things done faster," says Todd Olson, Cerebellum's chief technology officer.

Cerebellum flies in a telecommuting employee once a month to keep in touch. The company has monthly meetings via conference call that include employees at remote locations. Every six months, it conducts a company meeting and everyone comes to Pittsburgh for a half-day strategy session and a half-day social activity.

All telecommuting employees are encouraged to spend at least a day or two working in the company's offices. New employees, almost without exception, spend at least the first three weeks or so in the office, even if they will telecommute, to foster a bond with the organization and their co-workers.

Telecommuting is becoming a popular way for employers to attract and retain workers. Nearly 20 million people reported working as telecommuters in 1999, according to the International Telework Association and Council. In a study conducted by the Chicago Sun Times, 62 percent of human resources executives said telecommuting is being held out as an enticement to attract and retain employees.

And telecommuting, it appears, can help employers reduce costs. AT&T says it saves $3,000 a year for each teleworker.

Today's technology makes it fairly simple for employees working in a variety of disciplines to telecommute. But the technology is only one piece of the telecommuting puzzle. Like every decision in your business, it should be done for the right reasons.

"It shouldn't be done for the cool factor, the wow factor," advises Tim Kane, CEO of the Kinetic Workplace, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm that has helped more than 70 companies put together telecommuting programs for their workers. "They should do it because it supports good, sound business objectives."

Some of those reasons include employee retention, reduced costs for real estate and a more flexible work force, Kane points out. Companies can save $12,000 per telecommuter, Kane claims, reducing real estate costs by 40 percent to 60 percent. Some companies, he says, report increased job satisfaction and lowered absenteeism, as well.

However, telecommuting hasn't caught on with the large organizations in Pittsburgh yet, and Kane says that a number of factors have played a role. Pittsburgh's traditional view of work and the corporate environment make it more difficult for management to change. Unlike in many large cities, real estate costs in Pittsburgh are relatively modest.

While Western Pennsylvanians like to gripe about the difficulty of commuting here, local roads and highways are much less congested in Pittsburgh than in other major metropolitan areas.

Kane says employees often are the ones who initiate the move toward telecommuting within a company, and that senior management usually signs on to the idea early. Resistance comes at the middle management level, however, where traditional-style managers fear losing control or the sense of power and prestige they can display by having 40 employees who report to them within a few steps of their offices.

Kane says these managers will have to learn a new set of skills to be successful in a telecommuting world. They will have to learn to use Web-based collaborative tools, management by objectives and other skills that can replace or substantially supplement face-to-face interaction.

Despite residual resistance, Kane is convinced that telecommuting, because of its advantages, will take hold here as it has elsewhere. The availability of high-speed broadband and wireless communications is opening up the possibility of telecommuting virtually anywhere.

Service companies to support telecommuting programs are beginning to appear, making it easier to handle the technical side of the equation.

But, as Cerebellum has discovered, it takes more than a technical fix to make it work. How to reach: Cerebellum Software, www.cerebellum.com; Kinetic Workplace, www.kineticworkplace.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN magazine.