January 15, 2009

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Taking It Home

Telecommuting Options Drive Workplace Success

Hilary Ingoldsby Whitesides

January 15, 2009

With the nation’s economic crisis weighing heavily on employer’s minds, many are offering telecommuting to help employees save money and keep them on board. While more and more local companies are offering this work option, it’s nothing new to Utah. The state heralded the work-from-home business practice long ago. In June 1995, the governor’s office issued a guidebook on telecommuting, which included a statement from Governor Michael Leavitt challenging Utah to overcome technology and cultural barriers that impede the practice. Later that year, the state issued a telecommuting policy for state employees. Though not a right or benefit given to all state employees, the policy calls telecommuting “a method of reducing air pollution, reducing congestion, conserving energy, increasing employee productivity and efficiency and retaining a creative, experienced and diverse work force.” Now, 13 years later, telecommuting is no longer the wave of the future, but a statewide and national workforce movement. A Growing Trend Global consulting company Mercer found 44 percent of U.S. companies offered some type of telecommuting option for employees in 2005—a 32 percent increase from 2001. And the numbers keep growing. Mercer reports an expected one in four employers will offer telecommuting or a compressed work schedule to employees for the first time in the next six months. The recently released National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) by the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation shows that telecommuting is becoming more feasible for employers and employees. The survey shows that telecommuting grew greatly between 1995-2001 with 10.4 million people telecommuting at least occasionally in 2001. With 3.3 million Americans traveling 50 miles or more one way to work, according to the NHTS, it’s no wonder telecommuting is becoming as much a necessity as it is a benefit. Utah’s Department of Workforce Services calls telecommuting “the gift to employees that keeps giving back” and local companies following suit couldn’t agree more. A Win-Win AdvancedMD, a medical billing software company in Draper, started offering telecommuting and other flexible work schedule options when gas prices soared last summer. “We started looking at high gas prices for employees and wanted to help,” Pat Hall, director of human resources, says. “We just had to figure out a way to make sure the business needs were still met as well.” The solution at AdvancedMD meant telecommuting for some employees, compressed work schedules for others and the standard nine-to-five schedule for those needed in the office five days a week. Hall says the program has been successful so far thanks to open communication. Each department was encouraged to present a proposal for the type of schedule its employees needed. Management listened and varying schedules were permitted. Employees working nontraditional schedules are held to the same productivity expectations as if they were in the office. And employees know that if productivity standards are not met, the flexible work options can be taken away. Today, both employers and employees are pleased with the new arrangements. “It certainly keeps employees engaged in the company and helps the morale and retention long term,” Hall says. “And our productivity has kept up with our normal standards.” Salt Lake City’s Vanguard Media Group is another Utah company keeping up with the telecommuting trend. In May, the company started allowing employees to work from home one day a week—a decision spurred by general commuting concerns such as high gas prices, air pollution, paying bus or other commuting fares and traffic. Digitized files have made the switch easy for most employees, and Vanguard partner John Kindred feels employees are pleased with the change. “We have happier employees and they respect that we’ve made a change for them,” Kindred says. “It helps them feel better about their work environment.” Vanguard employees are allowed to choose which day of the week they’d like to spend working from home with the majority choosing Mondays or Fridays, according to Kindred. Aside from a little extra work to coordinate meetings and schedules, Kindred says the change has been positive for owners, managers and employees alike. Green Perks Employers and employees aren’t the only ones benefitting from the telecommuting trend, so is the environment. Leading by example, Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) reports 97 of its 400 employees telecommuted at least one day a week in 2007. According to DEQ Human Resources, employees saved an estimated 145,500 vehicle miles and a total of 128,719 pounds of CO2 were prevented by the telecommuting effort. The Department of Air Quality (DAQ) reports that every driver can keep a fourth of a pound of pollution out of the air by simply parking his or her car one day a week. If every driver on the Wasatch Front did this, emissions would decrease by 125 tons a week adding up to 6,500 tons a year. Make it work The Telework Coalition reports that telecommuting not only gives more job opportunities to disabled people and those living in rural areas, but that telecommuting employees are more productive without distractions commonly found at the office. So how do employers make it work? Vanguard’s John Kindred and AdvancedMD’s Pat Hall agree that accountability is the best way to ensure the success of a telecommuting program. Employees are still expected to meet deadlines and do daily tasks. In the technical support department at AdvancedMD, call logs are kept and checked regularly. Both AdvancedMD and Vanguard Media Group report that as long as company expectations are met, telecommuting will continue to be a viable option for employees. CNNMoney.com also says it is important to assess if the company’s work can be effectively completed outside of the office. For example, jobs requiring the phone or the computer are more easily accomplished from home than jobs requiring specific machinery, for example. Employers must also weigh the potential expense of providing home computers, Internet connections, fax machines or additional phone lines to employees, if needed.
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