Human Resources -- The Compelling Case For Telework

Dec. 21, 2004
Manufacturers that offer telecommuting reap productivity gains, cost savings.

Jack Heacock admits that he has a bias toward the 20 million people who work at least one day a week at home. His is, after all, former president and now a member of the executive committee of the International Telework Assn. & Council (ITAC), Washington. Heacock points to research conducted by ITAC that says companies that have adopted extensive telework programs have experienced an average productivity increase among those employees of 22%. One example: Managers with profit and loss responsibility at Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, have verified a 20% increase in productivity among telecommuting employees. "Telework programs return benefits that far outweigh their costs," says Heacock, a consultant who, not surprisingly, runs J. Heacock & Associates out of his home in Parker, Colo. He adds another compelling argument for telecommuting, based on research done by ITAC and other organizations. "At 10:45 a.m. on any particular day, 40% to 60% of [white-collar] employees are somewhere other than in their offices," asserts Heacock. "Walk around and see for yourself. Then ask yourself why you are investing in real estate space you don't need." IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., he says, has realized a reduction in real estate costs of more than 60% since it plunged full force into telework seven years ago. As the experiences of IBM and Cisco prove, telework is an attractive option for a wide range of workers in manufacturing companies. And, says Heacock, providing a telework option increases the size of the available labor pool. "Many people have opted out of the workplace because of family situations and they are not going to drive back into the central business district or give up their parenting duties," says Heacock. "With telework, you can attract those people because it lets them set up a schedule and pace that meets both their work and family needs." For those skeptics who view telework success stories as isolated instances or who question whether it can work on a large-scale basis, Heacock suggests they look into the experience of Alpine Access Inc., a virtual call center outsourcing firm based in Golden, Colo., where all 450 employees work from their homes. According to the company's annual report, in the first full year of telework employees were able to close 30% more calls than office-bound agents did the year before. Also, customer complaints declined by 90% and turnover decreased by 88%. Companies that want to initiate a telework option should avoid starting with a small pilot program, says Heacock. "Design it for scalability and success," he advises. "A 10-person pilot doesn't get management attention. Besides, we are talking about a fundamental change in how work occurs. Many disciplines have to be coordinated." It's important to develop criteria for the selection of remote employees, says Heacock, and, he advises, "You also need to understand and quantify the work to be performed and establish productivity and assessment metrics. There will be managers and supervisors who will resist this tooth-and-nail, because it forces them to manage by results. But that is what you need to do to succeed." Finally, Heacock warns companies to pay attention to often-overlooked issues such as home-office ergonomic and safety standards, furnishings, training for both teleworkers and supervisors, and support services for remote employees. "You want to provide good office furnishings because then safety becomes a nonissue," says Heacock. "Besides, at a typical cost of $1,500 to $2,000 per work-at-home employee, you can recoup your initial costs in less than six months. It also shows the remote worker that the company cares about him or her." And don't give at-home employees cash to buy the furnishings, says Heacock. "If you give them office furniture, they will use it. If you give them cash for office furniture, they will just spend it on something else." Senior Editor Michael A. Verespej covers human-resources issues for IndustryWeek.

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