How to make telework…really work

As telework initiatives spread, managers interested in adopting the flexible work model must set use policies, deploy enabling technologies and establish employee goals to guarantee their telework initiative is a success.

All indications point to the number of teleworkers increasing in U.S. companies.

A recent survey of about 200 HR managers by talent and outsourcing provider Yoh found that 81 percent of companies have remote work policies in place and 67 percent of respondents said they expect telecommuting will increase in the next two years.

According to WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz., nonprofit professional association focused on human resources issues, about 12.5 million of U.S. employees take advantage of telework today. The association defines employee teleworkers as full- or part-time employees who work from home at least one day per month.

Contract teleworkers, those self-employed individuals who work from their homes, brought the total number of U.S. teleworkers in 2006 closer to 29 million, about a 10 percent increase from 2005. The number is expected to grow as more companies realize the benefits of telework.

“Telework programs typically start with one employee coming forward making a request to work out of the office for a day or two per month, and from there, telework can grow like a weed within an organization,” says Rose Stanley, the work-life practice leader at WorldatWork. “The workplace is not going to look the same; it’s going to be vastly different. And managers need to start establishing policies to enable telework, because the new workforce is going to demand it.”

Taking the telework leap

Companies faced with a distributed workforce and limited resources for real estate often turn to telework.

For Linda Casey, senior operations manager at McKesson Health Solutions in Broomfield, Colo., telework programs help her staff virtual call centers for new clients, retain tenured and valued employees, and cut real estate costs.

McKesson, which employs registered nurses in call centers to provide over-the-phone triage and disease-management services to health plan members, maintains a telework program that employs between 80 percent and 85 percent of its workforce as full-time teleworkers.

With that, McKesson’s at-home population has grown to close to 800 call center agents in the past four years.

“Many companies can be very reluctant to venture into telework, but once they do, there is no turning back,” says Linda Casey, senior operations manager at McKesson. “The benefits for both the employer and the employee are so great that telework is something companies can’t afford not to do.”

For McKesson, the benefits range from money saved on real estate — to the tune of $1 million per year — to increased scheduling efficiencies, also saving the company about $1 million.

And the healthcare organization avoids spending $500,000 with new clients when a virtual call center replaces a traditional physical location. The virtual call centers also let McKesson employ talent local to the new clients, which scores points with McKesson customers.

“Telework helps give us diversity in hiring new people, because clients like it when we employ local talent, and telework makes it possible for us to keep tenured employees if for some reason they need to relocate,” she explains. And employees with at least a 29-mile round-trip commute would save as much as $3,000 per year, according to Casey’s research on the American Automobile Association Web site.

“The teleworker can save money, too,” she says.

Yet Casey reports McKesson’s success wasn’t guaranteed when the company launched its telework program in 2003. She says the company had its share of employees not suited to telework, as well as employees who lived up to managers’ worst fears.

“There are some employees that just are not suited to telework; they simply need more social interaction. And then there are those that just don’t work,” she says. “Telework is a lot like a marriage; you have to establish a trust and both sides — the employer and employee — need to work to get the relationship productive.”

Creating virtual communications

Clear and ongoing communications play a big part in telework’s success, experts say.

“Employers must sit down with employees to determine how they will check in with each other, how the work will be completed and how employee performance will be measured without as much face time between manager, co-workers and the teleworker,” says Jane Anderson, director of the Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education (MITE) in Minneapolis, Minn. “Fundamentally, the lines of communication have to be way open.”

Managers need to document telework policies that detail manager’s expectations for communications. For instance, teleworkers could be required to check in via phone or e-mail once per day, per week or at another time interval. But the manager needs to also let go of the idea that seeing is believing when it comes to teleworker productivity.

Managers must trust employees are working while not in the office.

“Managers’ number one fear is losing control over employees’ productivity when they are not in the office,” says Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange in Alexandria, Va. To match employees and their jobs to potential telework positions, the Telework Exchange offers a quiz-based online calculator, dubbed the Telework Eligibility Gizmo.

Auten says the calculator will help employees make their telework case with management.

“Performance has to be focused on actual work output and not the perception of working. In many cases, teleworkers can have fewer distractions and tend to be more productive than their in-office counterparts,” she says.

And the relationship with those in-office counterparts is just as important as the interaction between teleworkers and their managers. Industry watchers say educating co-workers that their teleworker colleagues work as much as they do is critical to office morale and could in fact cause telework burn out.

“People working at home fear there is a perception they are not actually working, and often will overdo it and work much harder to prove they deserve the same respect as in-office co-workers,” says Jack Nilles, co-founder and president of management consulting firm JALA International in Los Angeles.

Others say teaching all employees the benefits of telework and fostering communications between colleagues with video and teleconferences, on-site meetings and social gatherings will help employees continue to work toward the same goals.

Managers say they must also work to keep teleworkers de-stressed. “It’s not out of sight, out of mind. We want employees to take their breaks, to get away from their desks for lunch and to feel like a big part of the company team,” McKesson’s Casey says.

Adding enabling technologies

Part of enabling communications involves companies adopting new technologies to keep teleworkers in touch with the home office. Teleworkers must have at least the same technology available to them as their in-office counterparts.

That means home offices must be equipped with high-speed Internet connections, and employees must be granted remote-access capabilities, such as VPN from the corporate IT department.

Computer equipment — whether owned by the employee or supplied by the employer — must meet standard security guidelines, and help-desk staffers should be trained to deal with problems that could occur at a home or remote office.

“The technological requirements have to be there and employees need to be trained upfront on how to meet those requirements working outside the office,” Telework Exchange’s Auten says.

And for those home workers that may not have access to broadband, the federal government supports telework centers on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas, she says. “Broadband is not there for all areas yet, but there may be a center suitable for employees in a certain area.”

With baby boomers exiting the workforce, more companies will find new employees using mobile communications in their day-to-day lives, making the idea of instant messaging, texting and cell-phone use more standard for office operations.

“Generation Y is just expecting to be able to telework. That is one of the first things they are asking in job interviews,” MITE’s Anderson says.

Companies also have the choice to work with vendors offering new collaboration tools to enable telework in their organization.

Technologies available from Citrix Systems and WebEx Communications help remote workers log in to meetings alongside in-office colleagues; software-as-a-service companies such as Everdream provide continuous patch updates to laptops; and Symantec recently announced an online backup service.

“Teleworking can put a big technology burden on some companies,” says Jeff Kaplan, managing director of consultancy ThinkStrategies. “[Software-as-a-service] and managed services providers are drafting their managed service agreements to include not only the centralized office but also the customer’s teleworkers.”

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