Lemmings make leap to teleworkers

There’s no shortage of reasons for AT&T to continue its telework program, which has helped the company slash its annual real estate costs by US$30 million and rake in US$150 million in extra hours of productive work from teleworkers.

But just in case new owner SBC Communications needs another reason, consider retention rates. Research shows AT&T tele-workers are much less likely to jump ship than in-office staff, according to Joseph Roitz, AT&T’s telework director.

“Turnover in our virtual office population is half that of the turnover in our general salaried employee population,” Roitz says.

AT&T already had a well-established telework program when Roitz took over in 2000. Since his arrival, the number of virtual office workers at AT&T has tripled, and the annual business benefit has grown to more than US$180 million.

Most recently, weather-related disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have reminded Roitz and others at AT&T of the importance of teleworking. Having a distributed workforce lowers AT&T’s exposure to events such as Katrina, Roitz says. In addition, telework-enabled staffers were able to quickly collaborate to come to the aid of employees affected by the disaster.

As an incident management director at AT&T, Roitz was responsible for helping to coordinate post-hurricane activities, such as locating AT&T employees and getting them assistance. The company’s virtual office workers helped expedite the process. “We were able to rapidly assemble a cross-functional team of people all over the country, whatever skills and talents we needed, and bring that virtual team to bear on that situation,” says Roitz, who works out of his home in Little Rock, Ariz.

AT&T has supported teleworkers for more than a decade, and the idea of telework as a business continuity strategy has always been a consideration. It’s a notion that’s catching on in the corporate world and influencing companies to grow and formalize their telework programs, Roitz says. “It used to be that productivity, job satisfaction and real estate savings were the primary drivers of this, but now business continuity has leapt to the forefront of why companies are looking at this.”

Industry-wide, culture remains the biggest barrier to telework adoption, according to Roitz. “For 200 years, we’ve operated an industrial economy with — almost unconsciously — these assembly-line patterns where we have to watch our workers and we all commute like lemmings into the office at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m.”

But work today is much different. It’s more global, more around the clock and more conducive to teleworking, he says. “Realizing those things takes time. As much as anything, it’s fear of the unknown that holds us back.”

AT&T is switching its employee teleworkers to its VoIP-enabled CallVantage service, Roitz says. A study of employee teleworkers found that the most important feature of the CallVantage service is the ability to access voice mails from a Web page. About 80 per cent say that’s among the top time-saving features.

Another favourite is the “locate me” feature, which rings multiple phone numbers at the same time or in any sequential order. “Your phone will run you down wherever you happen to be,” Roitz says. Combined, such features save each employee about one hour per week — which is a 2.5 per cent increase in productivity — according to AT&T’s latest research.

While AT&T continues to evolve its telework program, it doesn’t look to bog down adoption with rigid rules and burdensome approval processes. “Our formal program is as informal as it can possibly be,” Roitz says. AT&T runs a Web site filled with telework resources, but the company lets managers and employees make most of their own telework decisions.

It’s a conscious effort to grow the telework program at a grass-roots level, according to Roitz. “The business benefit comes from having more teleworkers, not controlling your existing teleworkers,” he says.

So far the approach is working. About 30 per cent of management employees worked full-time outside of the traditional office in 2004, and another 41 per cent worked from home an average of one or two days per week.

Another 19 per cent of management employees didn’t work from home regularly, but occasionally did so when weather or other events affected their office locations. Put together, that leaves just 10 per cent of management staff who worked only in traditional office settings during normal business hours.

In addition, satisfaction among AT&T’s virtual office staff is high. About 66 per cent of AT&T tele-workers say they are more satisfied with their jobs since beginning their arrangements, and just 1 per cent report they are less satisfied. In addition, 69 per cent of teleworkers say they’re more satisfied with their personal and family lives, while just 2 per cent report less satisfaction in this area.

A key part of the arrangement is it makes employees feel trusted. “Trust is something you really can’t buy,” Roitz sums up.

It’s not yet clear what, if any, changes will be made to AT&T’s telework program under new owner SBC, which closed its acquisition of AT&T late last year, Roitz says.

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