For nearly 20 million Americans, going to work can mean a short stroll down the hall, or taking a laptop to a coffee shop.
US firms are increasingly organising growing numbers of teleworkers around networks instead of buildings, thus cutting costs and boosting productivity.
Corporate America views teleworking as a recruitment and retention tool, and a means of controlling costs, according to Gil Gordon, ‘virtual’ office consultant.
Typical telework has changed over the past 30 years, he says. “Anybody whose work is portable, in healthcare, retail, and even manufacturing, can work outside the office a few days a week without missing a beat,” Gordon adds.
The greatest quantifiable benefit is improved productivity, buttressed by reduced absentee costs – an average $2,000 (£1,140) per employee, according to figures from the American Management Association.
Telecoms giant AT&T estimates its annual savings at $180m (£102.6m) in productivity, real estate savings, and business continuity. The firm is wholly committed as both a technology provider and teleworking model. Almost 30% of full-time managers work away from offices, while 41% work from home one or two days a week. About 90% of salaried employees do some sort of remote work.
Teleworking allows AT&T to function when weather or other events disturb office access. Joe Roitz, telework director, says: “When hurricanes shut many buildings in the American south last year company functions carried on because everyone was working virtually,” he adds. “The assumption at AT&T is that all jobs are telework, unless proven otherwise.”
Investments in broadband access, equipment and training are offset by eliminating benefits like car, transit, and parking subsidies, as well as shrinking real estate overheads.
With about 40,000 employees, AT&T is aggressively rolling out Voiceover Internet Protocol (VoIP) for employees, who manage voicemail online, saving about an hour per week – as well as reduced telephone costs.
Another productive hour is gained daily by simply eliminating commuting and workplace distractions. “Remote working is no longer just an option for business,” says chief marketing manager Kathleen Flaherty. “It has become an essential part of the networking toolbox.”
For firms with a dispersed workforce, networks maintain supervisor-worker connections, whether 200 metres or 200 kilometres apart. But adopting results-based management requires moving away from procedure-based management – a huge cultural shift. “Good employees are usually good teleworkers, demonstrating the same work ethic, discipline and skills wherever they work,” Roitz says.
“The best programmes develop where HR consistently thinks about redefining work, not just when it’s time to send it home,” says Gordon. HR should team up with real estate and IT partners to implement policy, because personnel departments alone are “often conditioned to look primarily at risk-avoidance and liability”, he adds.
Flexibility and mobility means improved work-life balance and reduced turnover, which for AT&T’s teleworking managers, is 50% less than their office-based counterparts.
The US federal government employs 1.8 million people and its own estimates show teleworking offers $40bn (£22.8bn) in potential annual savings.
Those figures and homeland security concerns prompted a new law, forcing departmental managers to explore alternative workplace arrangements before acquiring new space.
However, only 5% of federal employees telework, as managers are still balking at costs and selecting which jobs and employees to put forward.
For this reason, buy-in from senior management is critical, as is communicating benefits and results, according to Gordon. Stigma remains in the public sector around homeworkers, even though today everyone does some form of telework – be it responding to an e-mail from a PDA, reviewing reports on a plane, or teleconferencing from home.
If managers can separate fact from myth they can begin to think more broadly, Gordon says. “Don’t look at it because it’s a trend or because it’s possible. Just look at it as a business solution to a business problem.”