Telecommuting: executives question need to be in office
By Rachel Lebeaux, Associate Editor | 2008-08-24
Work/life balance. Employee retention. Now we can add $4 for a gallon of gas to the list of reasons that more and more IT executives have begun to consider telecommuting.
In a recent SearchCIO.com survey of enterprise CIOs and IT managers, 33% of respondents said that they have increased the number of days they telecommute to the office. Overall, 75% said that they had begun to telecommute in some capacity before the advent of this year's gas crisis.
While $4 gas appears to have been the tipping point for many an IT executive to reconsider his physical work environment – and whether it is truly necessary to work from the office – there are many other factors to consider when determining whether to institute a telecommuting policy, whether solely for the executive, for his staff, or both.
"As gas prices got worse, I was getting calls from employees saying that they couldn't afford to drive to work anymore and asking how they could get a job telecommuting," said Chuck Wilsker, the president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization whose aim is to support and enable mobile and distributed workforces through research, education, technology and legislation.
Over the past couple of months, Wilsker's organization has received an increasing number of calls from executives who seek telecommuting-friendly situations in the midst of rising gas prices. "They make a good living, with a six-figure income, but it's starting to affect their discretionary income," Wilsker said.
But it didn't stop there. "I would also get calls from employers saying that more and more employees were coming to them, asking, 'Can I look at telecommuting? Otherwise, I quit,'" Wilsker said.
Indeed, employee retention is one of the most important factors to consider when examining telecommuting, Wilsker said. The cost of replacing an employee, especially a higher-level worker, can be pricey – a cost only magnified when a company factors in the costs of a headhunter, the time spent by existing employees on interviewing and processing prospective employees, and the time and effort required to bring a new employee up to speed.
For many managers, worker productivity also weighs heavily in the decision whether they, or other staff, should be permitted to work from home. Many managers fear that staffers will put fewer hours into their job if they telecommute.
But Wilsker said that in reality it's the opposite: Many employees actually work longer hours on the days that they telecommute. He attributes the increase in the number of hours worked to the fact that telecommuting workers no longer have to get ready and commute to the office, so they work during that time instead.
"We've seen some studies that show employees work an hour more each day," Wilsker said. "You tend to knock off work a little later because you don't have to drive home. And, after dinner, you have a tendency to check your email again."
Needless to say, trust in one's staff is an important part of the telecommuting equation. Wilsker said that it's necessary for managers to identify telecommunicating candidates among those staff members who have already demonstrated that they work well independently and without supervision. It's also important to establish benchmarks for productivity for both office-based and telecommuting staff to ensure that each group pulls its weight.
Finally, Wilsker emphasized that working at home requires the right kind of environment for workers to be productive. "If you have kids around the house, you need to have an office with a door," he said.
An increasingly common option
Tom Trancoso, an IT senior manager at ExpressJet Airlines Inc., said that the Houston-based company does not currently have specific policies with regard to telecommuting, "but we're looking at it very strongly as an initiative."
Given the price of fuel and the increased responsibilities for staff in the face of personnel cuts, "we're trying to do everything possible to make it a comfortable environment to continue working in. We want to keep people working here who might be considering leaving."
In particular, the company has considered the telecommuting option for its development team. But, first, it is weighing the importance of face time and visibility on work performance.
"They don't really interact a lot with other folks, at least not to the extent that they need to be here very much," Trancoso said. The 10-person group might begin by telecommuting three or four days each week and coming into the office the remainder of the time.
One advantage to telecommuting, Trancoso said, is that it frees up office space. The company has considered consolidating office space and shutting down one of its four Houston offices. Telecommuting would obviously aid in that effort.
But telecommuting is not for everyone, Trancoso warned. "I think there are a certain number of people who need to have the discipline of getting up and going to the office to change their mind-set," Trancoso said. "Those same people, if they didn't leave the house, would have trouble. … They can't get out of the fuzzy-slipper mentality."
Trancoso said that he occasionally telecommutes himself but usually comes into the office. "I'm flexible enough that I can choose when I work from home, but our CEO likes to be able to reach out and touch you when he wants, so I try to make it a point to be here," he said.
But he acknowledges that some workers -- himself included -- are actually more productive at home. "I'll work all day, as well as take care of stuff around the house, and then at 10 at night, I'll look at my watch and think, 'I should probably wrap it up,'" he said.
With an increasing set of responsibilities at work, Trancoso says, "I'm going to start doing some more of it at home," he said. "I don't want to spend 12 hours a day, five days a week here at the office. I'll spend 12 hours each day working, but some of it has got to be from home."
Thankfully, the technology supports his company's intentions. The firm already has a VPN and, "as long as you can get a good connection at home, staff can do what they need to do – it's like they're sitting in the office," he said. "The technology is there, it's proven, it's solid and works well, and for anyone giving any consideration to telecommuting, the last concern should be whether technology will support it – because it will."
Teambuilding via telecommuting
Kelley Lovette, a senior manager of IT at Waste Management, said that she has an entire team of field-based corporate employees who work either from a field location or from a home office and who come to the corporate office only once or twice a year. The IT department at the 47,000-employee company has about 400 employees and 100 contractors; Lovette oversees 27 of them.
Lovette said that she communicates with staff via email, phone, WebEx conferencing, shared documents and calendar, and other such technologies. To ensure that distance doesn't diminish team spirit, the team conducts baby photo contests and "personal-facts bingo."
"They also work remotely together in 'task force' groups, established to make recommendations to improve communication and coordination," she said. "Because most of the team has worked together on major projects, where they have traveled together extensively, they are closer and tend to know more about each other personally than employees who work in the office together every day."
Lovette has personally experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting. "For almost seven years, I worked either from home or traveled to our group or corporate office, and at the time, I loved the flexibility of being able to go running at lunch without having to worry about being presentable afterwards or starting to cook dinner while still monitoring email," she said.
Still, she now willingly works in the corporate office daily and -- despite rising gas prices -- believes it's worth it. "I like the separation between work and home life," she said. "I had never realized that I had felt like I was 'at work' 24/7 because my office was so accessible."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Rachel Lebeaux, Associate Editor