Turning to telework

On the morning of Sept. 11, Michelle Bernal was about to board the ferry for lower Manhattan when she saw smoke billowing from the Twin Towers.

She didn’t board the ferry.

“I decided it wouldn’t be a good day to go in to work,” says Bernal, the assistant vice-president of global recruitment strategies at Merrill Lynch.

While she hasn’t since been back to Manhattan, having lost her office – along with 9,000 other company employees at World Financial Center and other locations in lower Manhattan – Bernal was back to work within a week as a teleworker.

She and her manager formulated an impromptu work arrangement in which Bernal splits her time between her home office in Mineola, N.Y., and the company’s Somerset, N.J., office. Until her company-issued laptop arrives, she’s using her own PC and at last check was waiting for Verizon to install her second phone line.

Although Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. corporate e-mail servers were down in the days following the attacks, Bernal could correspond with co-workers via her cell phone and personal Hotmail account. If she couldn’t access documents, she worked with team members to rebuild ongoing projects from documents co-workers had stored on their laptops.

These days, she shuttles between the Somerset office and a desk perched in an alcove in her home. Her Somerset days are long and involve a strenuous, 70-mile traffic-jammed commute both ways. In contrast, her home office “casts a calming influence.” She says she can balance her job with her personal needs, work out and eat home-cooked meals more often, and generally live a healthier lifestyle.

Yet, in looking to the future, Bernal is realistic. She knows when Merrill Lynch eventually reopens its World Financial Center headquarters, she’ll be asked to resume her old 70-minute commute by train. Even so, Bernal says Merrill Lynch seems willing to explore permanent part-time arrangements with workers who were dislocated by the attacks, adding, “I like working from home. It’s just like being at work.”

Sun Microsystems Inc.

Before the terrorist attacks, Sun was knee-deep in implementing iWork, a formal telework program that relies on a combination of home offices, drop-in centres and flexible space in the company’s New York-area offices. Sun had hoped to send as many as 5,000 workers worldwide home by year-end.

Instead, the loss of two floors of World Trade Center office space forced Sun to find alternative offices for 800 workers practically overnight.

“This wasn’t the way we’d hoped to accomplish our goal,” says Cathy Guilbeault, Sun’s director of workplace resources.

Sun acted quickly. First, it suspended registration for the iWork program, letting the New York staffers – most of whom were technical support and sales representatives – sidestep a lengthy approval process. Next, Sun shipped out 200 laptops with the iWork CD-ROM loaded with Netscape Navigator, antivirus software and Sun’s StarOffice office suite. Workers were given network access, call forwarding and faxing capabilities from their original office extensions, and offered remote work and management training.

“To get the flexibility we needed, we opened up the telework option to everyone affected,” Guilbeault says. That way, those who wanted to jump right back into work had a phone and a system. And those who needed more time knew the tools were there when they were ready to come back to work.

“To us, it was all about providing the technology they need to work – whether it’s from home, a Sun site or customer location,” she says.

While it’s too soon to say how many new teleworkers will choose to return to traditional offices, the sense is most who chose iWork will stick with it. In retrospect, Guilbeault is grateful so many of the dislocated workers opted to telework. With nearly half its New York-area office space lost, she doesn’t know where Sun would have put them all.

American Express Co.

While many companies affected by the attacks give telework full credit for helping them get back to business, some are a little uneasy with the long-term effects of a distributed workforce.

Take American Express. It has a long-standing telework program and relied on the practice to facilitate disaster recovery. But as a result of events, the company says it finds itself alarmingly dispersed – with employees scattered across half a dozen corporate locations and hundreds of homes.

While Julie Gerdeman’s offices at 40 Wall St. were not damaged by the attacks, American Express relocated her 30-person department to home offices to make room for some of the 3,000 dislocated employees.

“Everybody got reconfigured,” says Gerdeman, a vice-president of account development with the group. Because Gerdeman’s group provides corporate relationship services and expense management support for clients in New York, “it was a natural migration to have us working from home,” she says.

But for how long?

“In the immediate aftermath, we focused on getting all those employees back doing their jobs day to day,” says Tony Mitchell, vice-president of public affairs and communications. “But now there’s a larger question. Can all these folks can work effectively and do the company’s business this way? It’s a challenge to figure out where we all are going to be on a permanent basis.”

Ten Tips to Telework

For some, Sept. 11 changed everything in the workplace.

And for others, it changed very little.

Some companies have known for years that telework is an effective trump card against natural disasters or other calamities – a way to keep workers working. But these days, everybody’s getting it. Even so, don’t wait for a calamity to create a telework program: We found that companies with some previous telework experience were quicker to find ways to get their employees working again – whether at home or some shared space – in the weeks following the terrorist attacks.

While you’ll find a wealth of advice from us and others on how to launch a formal remote work program, much of it assumes you’ve got several months with which to work. Instead, we’ve pulled together 10 essential tips that could have your employees teleworking in weeks, if not days.

1. Make your first call to IT. Computer, network and telephone systems work in concert to make remote officing work. From IT and computer and software procurement, to cellular, local, broadband and long-distance telephone providers, the sooner IT knows what remote workers need, the sooner it can get them up and running.

2. List your resources. If the company has never instituted a formal telework program, spend time listing some of the resources – telework consultants, Web sites, even internal employees and managers familiar with telework best practices – who can be turned to provide the critical insights needed.

3. Be flexible in space selection. In ideal circumstances, workers have the time to plan and equip a home office. In a bind, that time, let alone an appropriate workspace, might not be available. In a pinch, combine remote and alternative officing strategies. Call on strategic partners who might have space available to sublet, and find resources and allies with space to spare. Long-term solutions will come eventually, but being creative at the outset can go a long way in getting your business back to normal.

4. Know the organizational chart. By knowing the intricacies of your company’s workers, teams, departments and critical adjacencies, managers can help facilities and human resources colleagues place workers in appropriate settings – whether it’s a shared space or home office.

5. Pick the right people. If possible, put only top performers in home offices – those who work well with the team or alone, consistently meet their deadlines and are easily managed from near or far. If this isn’t an option, make sure team members are monitored closely to ensure they’re performing to expectations.

6. Forget the polish. Under ideal circumstances, a telework pilot program is afforded time for thoughtful planning, testing and rollout. During a crisis, some of the planning can give way to get workers back to work. Productivity and performance reviews can be accelerated or held more frequently to ensure new teleworkers are meeting their deliverables and working well remotely.

7. Identify the best place workspace. Once you’ve established who will work from home, help them pick the most appropriate spot. The ideal place for a home office is in a dedicated room with a door. In a pinch, any quiet space secluded from the bustle of home life will do. At minimum, ensure there’s a desk, computer, ergonomic chair, proper lighting, an Internet connection (preferably high-speed) and a business phone line. In the days after the attacks, many resourceful teleworkers used their cell phones for business and their home phone lines for Web access.

8. Keep team spirit alive. Realize that remoteness is a state of mind. Whether they’re down the hall or across the country, workers rely on e-mail, instant messaging and the phone to connect. Even so, expect the sudden loss of physical contact and water cooler banter to exacerbate feelings of isolation. One way to maintain contact with the team is for members to start each day by sending an “I’m open for business” e-mail that includes the day’s schedule and tasks to be accomplished. Make time for friendly chatter, so long as it doesn’t interrupt workflow.

9. Exchange personal information. A good practice in the best and worst of times: If the network goes down, private “”e-mail and cell, personal and home-office telephone numbers can be invaluable for getting people back in touch. If appropriate, create and maintain a company site where people can exchange such information. Many first-time teleworkers reported that the lack of access to colleagues’ personal information hampered recovery efforts.

10. Reach out and communicate. Disaster response requires corporate leadership and a support network to calm employees and answer questions. “Reach out as proactively as you can,” recommends Julie Gerdeman, a vice-president of account development in American Express’ corporate services group. “Overcommunication makes people know we’re there, and they have the information they need to succeed in this new environment.”