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Establishing a Corporate Telecommuting Program


Table of Contents

Background

The word telecommuting was coined in 1973 by Jack N. Nilles, who managed various spacecraft research and development programs for the US Space Program. Telecommuting is the concept of employees performing some portion of their job from a remote location and using basic telecommunications technology to connect the employees to their regular corporate office location. Marketing and sales representatives and customer support people have been doing this, without the tag of telecommuter, for years. Initially touted as the answer to compliance with the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, a list of benefits too good for companies to resist soon appeared. Among the benefits listed were: savings in real estate costs, help in recruiting and holding good workers, reduced sick leave, expanded universe of available workers, and increased productivity. Employees would benefit by having greater personal freedom and enhanced lifestyles.

Predictions 10 years ago of a 'workplace revolution' with empty skyscrapers and every worker in blue jeans and slippers have not come true. Cynics accuse the telecommuting hardware and software suppliers of hyping their wares as a solution looking for a problem, and that technology is pulling industry toward its' view of the world. In spite of the cynics, technology advancements in personal computers, networking software, fax machines, e-mail, and video conferencing have made telecommuting more appealing for companies and employees. Telecommuting is receiving mixed reviews at this time. A November 25,1996 US Today cover story by Del Jones, paints a picture of telecommuting as stuck in the slow lane despite a decade of hype. While others, such as, Booze-Allen, Pacific Bell and the Pacific Northwest Telecommuting Advisory Council continue to tout the benefits as outweighing any down side to telecommuting.

As our economy becomes more information based, telecommuting will grow, since those producing the information can be located outside the traditional office. Work has become portable and may be done on the road, from the home, a customer's office, a field office or telecenter. Today, two thirds of the Fortune 1000 Companies have telecommuting programs, half of which were started in the past two years. Some 9 million Americans telecommuted from home in 1994, while millions more telecommuted from virtual offices and telecenters. AT&T, for instance, claims 22,500 employees telecommute on a regular basis.

Six Step Process of Investigating the Potential for Telecommuting

STEP 1: Corporate Telecommuting Program Goals

The first step is to state the corporate goal(s) for implementing a telecommuting program. This establishes the organizations' expectations for the program against which the desirability of implementing can be assessed and it provides program evaluation criteria for continued improvement. Traditional goals have been related to the environment, economics and quality of life. Although the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 has been watered down recently by Congress, maintaining a corporate image of being a good neighbor concerned about the environment may still provide a significant driver for telecommuting. Other goal considerations could be decreasing facility overhead costs and new hire relocation costs; employee morale and life style considerations which help recruit and retain valuable employees; allowing quicker recovery from natural disasters, such as earthquakes, using telecommuters' homes as alternate work sites; and increased productivity. The key here is that the organization select the criteria against which their decision will be made and against which the program will be evaluated on an on-going basis.

STEP 2: Focus Group

The second step is to assign a focus group to implement the methodology under the direction of a senior management representative. The group's responsibility is to conduct the research, analysis, and pilot program and to develop a telecommuting recommendation for Senior Management approval. If the decision is to implement telecommuting, then the group will develop a policy, training program, and company wide implementation plan. Once implemented, the group will continue to monitor the program against the established evaluation criteria. This provides continuous input for recommendations for change and improvement to the program.

The focus group should be made up of a cross section of the organization. Representatives from human resources, information systems, finance as well as department managers, supervisors, and individual and team contributors. Input from key customers and suppliers with whom telecommuters may be interfacing, could be important to the decision process.

STEP 3: Information Review

The feasibility assessment is based on information obtained from a literature review, employee surveys and interviews, and a pilot study. The information to review can include:

  1. The Clean Air Act;
  2. Government initiatives to encourage telecommuting;
  3. The attitude of employees toward telecommuting;
  4. The effects of telecommuting on employees and organizations;
  5. Practical application of telecommuting, including competitors experience; and
  6. Methods to ensure the successful implementation of a telecommuting program.

Periodicals can also provide insight on current information about telecommuting. A list of publications from which a literature review can be started is presented at the end of this article.

STEP 4: Employee Surveys and Interviews

The next step is to identify organization candidates for data collection surveys and interviews. The surveys serve to assess the organizational climate and attitudes toward telecommuting. Carefully designed questionnaires provide personal comments concerning the overall support for telecommuting and concerns about potential drawbacks. The literature review will provide examples of surveys used at other companies from which a survey can be developed.

STEP 5: Pilot Study

The pilot study serves to test hypotheses and possible options to be included in the program. An important aspect of the pilot study is an assessment of both subordinates and managers of the success of the study in terms of the goals set by management, and in particular, productivity. The duration of the pilot study must be of sufficient to assess the feasibility of telecommuting, and determining both the positive and negative impacts. The pilot study requires the managers of telecommuters be fully supportive of their workers' participation in the program. The pilot study definition should include telecommuter selection criteria, start and stop dates of the program, evaluation criteria, what equipment and services the company will provide, and any other items the focus group determines need to be defined.

STEP 6: Analysis, Conclusions and Recommendations

The focus group performs an analysis of all the data collected to assess the human, economic and organizational factors related to telecommuting. Conclusions should include:

  • How well a telecommuting program would be received and supported by employees,
  • The likelihood of employees using the options in a manner to benefit themselves and the company,
  • The likelihood of management accepting telecommuting,
  • How corporate goals can be achieved, and
  • Would this be a good business decision.

The conclusions and recommendations together with the supporting data should be documented in a report which is reviewed with the management representative. Once consensus is achieved, the results are presented to senior management.

Telecommuter Profile

Personality, desire and job function are important considerations when selecting candidates for telecommuting. As companies have gained more experience with telecommuting programs, a greater body of knowledge is available about who becomes successful telecommuters.

Personality characteristics for employees selected for telecommuting are:

  1. Self motivated;
  2. Have above average organizational and time management skills; and
  3. Require a minimum of supervision
  4. Have a desire to telecommute.

Other positive characteristics are: seeking a non-managerial career track; possess good software and hardware knowledge; and draw professional satisfaction from the end product as opposed to the process.

Not making good telecommuting candidates are those who:

  1. Need to meet face-to-face with people in the work place every day;
  2. Operate machinery, such as in manufacturing operations;
  3. Require extensive training or supervision;
  4. Need a large amount of reassurance and positive reinforcement

Productivity

Surveys of companies with telecommuting programs report increased worker productivity of as much as 15% to 20%. Factors contributing to the improvement are:

  1. Interruptions and distractions found in the traditional office environment are minimized at home;
  2. More effective employment of project management;
  3. Better coordination of schedules and scheduling of meetings;
  4. Reduced absenteeism and sick leave; and
  5. Focus primarily on project development as opposed to internal politics.

Reduced employee stress, fewer interruptions, more comfortable surroundings and more time with the family as a result of less commute time lead to greater satisfaction with their overall life style and hence higher productivity. But the telecommuter must have an high work ethic, for there is potential for distractions at home as well.

Factors which negatively impact productivity are:

  1. Reduced ability to respond to a crises situation that requires immediate interaction;
  2. Isolation from the company mainstream which can result in missed opportunities for contribution; and
  3. complications in the employee development programs

Management Issues

Executives surveyed said that lack of management control and loss of the team concept are the most common concerns they hear from would-be supervisors of telecommuters. Another issue is guaranteeing the security of confidential company materials and classified customer materials. Two thirds of the companies surveyed are addressing these issues through training and policy development.

Employee Issues

The most frequently expressed concerns are a feeling of isolation and lack of social interaction, and absence from the work place places the telecommuter at a disadvantage for promotions. The first of these concerns can be alleviated by having a good communication system which includes local and wide area networks and electronic mail. The second concern requires that the telecommuter and their manager have the same clear understanding of what is expected of the telecommuter. Advancement must depend primarily on individual performance as measured against established standards with management supporting product-based appraisals.

Training

Training of telecommuters and their managers before the program begins helps them to know what to expect. They need to thoroughly understand the technologies, hardware and software that supports them in the day-to-day performance of their duties. Telecommuters must apply the same work ethic rules when they telecommute as they do in the work place. They should avoid interruptions and distractions.

Managers must learn to manage by results instead of by observation of the employee working.

The entire organization needs an orientation in the telecommuting program so that they understand the company goals and objectives, policy, telecommuter selection criteria, performance appraisal criteria and program evaluation criteria.

Training will help maintain a team atmosphere at the company rather than an "us versus them" attitude.

Cost Considerations

In a normal business model, the largest expenses for a company are first the people and second the bricks and mortar. Telecommuting allows an organization to reduce these costs.

Telecommuting substitutes for office space by removing work from the workplace. Corporate real estate and overhead costs can be cut. It requires the flexible use of space to accommodate the change in the way business is being done. The amount of physical space needed for employee parking is reduced.

People costs are reduced as a result of increased productivity, lower absenteeism/sick leave, and reduced hiring costs from lower employee turnover.

The biggest saving for the employee is in commute costs. Cost incurred will be for a home office, primarily furniture and office equipment.

Basic decisions must be made by the company as to delegation of expenses. Typically, companies cover office supplies, computer equipment and software, business telephone and postage. Other costs to the company include telecommuting hardware (LAN/WAN) and software, and system support. Experience to date indicates cuts in business costs of $2 for every dollar invested in technologies. The focus group analysis must include the trade off of costs to be incurred against the cost savings when recommending a telecommuting program business decision.

Conclusions

Establishing a Telecommuting Program is a complex and time consuming undertaking, but the benefits tend to outweigh the costs.

Thanks to Chuck Hauber, who has been telecommuting from Florida to California for the past year, for writing this article.

References and Publications

  1. PNTAC, Pacific Northwest Telecommuting Advisory Council,
    22524 SE 64th Place, Suite 3211
    Issaquah, WA 98027
    phone (206) 557-4380, FAX (206) 557-4391
  2. "Telecommuting: An Alternate Route to Work" a two-volume guidebook with step-by-step information for organizations interested in developing a successful telecommuting program.
    Washington State University, Cooperative Extension Energy Program, Telecommuting/Telecommunications.
    925 Plum Street SE Building 4,
    P.O. Box 43165,
    Olympia, WA 98504-3165
  3. "The Virtual Office Survival Handbook", by Alice Bredin, John Wiley & Sons.
  4. "Telecommuters' Handbook", by Brad and Debra Schepp,
  5. Publications - Telecommuting Review and Information Week
  6. A study by Ernst & Young for the US Department of Labor, on the "Innovative Workplace", - describes costs and benefits of workplace innovation.
  7. The Institute for the Study of Distributed Work, (ISDW), Oakland CA, maintains a comprehensive bibliography on telecommuting-related matters.
  8. Pacific Bell's Telecommuting Resource Guide, Ms. Josie Reja and Ms Julie Dodd-Thomas
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