In defense of telecommuting

Sure, it takes effort to get it right, but a telecommuting program can benefit companies, employees, and the environment

In the business world, it's easy to make even the most promising project fail, if you want it to. All you need is cynicism and a few strategic missteps. Have someone on high at your company eager to bring Macs into the workplace? Give it the nod, then purchase old machines (how about the old 512ks?) -- and provide outsourced tech support from a country where speaking a word of English is a floggable offense. Project is killed, but hey, you tried!

I raise this point in regard to a recent article on InfoWorld by contributor Bob Lewis, titled "10 sure-fire ways to kill telecommuting." As the title suggests, Lewis lays out 10 techniques to put the kibosh on a telecommuting program. Now, Lewis takes an extreme stance in order to make a point: It's easy to get telecommuting wrong. If through laziness or ignorance or oversight your company lapses into the abysmal telecommuting practices Lewis outlines, you'll end up torturing telecommuters to the point that bumper-to-bumper traffic looks appealing. And your business will suffer for it.

I enjoyed Lewis' article and I agree wholeheartedly with his main point. Clearly, making telecommuting work requires careful planning and a concerted effort from all employees. But in focusing on how telecommuting goes wrong, Lewis fails to make the case for telecommuting -- and there's definitely a case to be made. Thus, I would like to present four reasons to give telecommuting a chance at your organization. That could mean letting employees work from home five days a week or just two days a week, depending on what makes the most sense.

1. Telecommuting can increase employee productivity. The stereotypical telecommuter lounges around at home in his or her PJs munching Cheetos while flipping between "Days of Our Lives" and reruns of "The Andy Griffith Show." In reality, however, research has found that folks who are supposed to be working from home do, in fact, work -- in some cases, more than their in-office counterparts.

For example, American Express teleworkers produce 43 percent more business than employees at the office, according to Colorado Telework Coalition. Productivity increased 31 percent among the 9,000 telecommuters in British Telecom's workforce of 80,000, according to the Telework Foundation. At JD Edwards, telecommuters are 20 to 25 percent more productive than office workers, another stat shared by the Telework Foundation.

One other notable nugget: CareGroup Health System reports that those of its medical record coders who work remotely seem more amenable to putting in overtime when necessary.

I certainly would not take this to mean that the guy who whiles away his work hours at the office giggling at lolcats will become a work dynamo if he logs in to the office from his apartment. There's something to be said for hiring the right kind of employees, setting expectations, and managing them properly.

2. Telecommuting programs save companies money. There's cash to be saved from letting employees work remotely -- and not just because you can get away with purchasing fewer pounds of coffee to energize bleary-eyed workers each morning. You're also looking at reduced expenses on office supplies, electricity, and real estate, not to mention reduced absenteeism. According to the Telework Advisory Group of WorldatWork, employers can realize an annual per-employee savings of $5,000 through telecommuting.

Much of those savings come from lower real-estate costs: Telecommuting creates an opportunity to consolidate offices (helpful during these tough economic times) or postpone expansion. For example, AT&T reports savings of $3,000 per office, for approximately $550 million, by eliminating or consolidating office space. Meanwhile, about 25 percent of IBM's 320,000 workers worldwide telecommute, saving Big Blue some $700 million in real estate costs.

There's also savings to be reaped from reduced absenteeism. According to Nortel, the costs of just outfitting and equipping an employee for telecommuting can be made up in the first year if just 3.5 days away from work can be saved (e.g. being able to work from while taking care of a sick child, nursing a cold, or other events that might otherwise force an employee to take a day off). The number drops to 1.5 days for each subsequent year.

Finally, there's the easy-to-overlook economic (and societal) benefit of reducing traffic congestion, which is already a problem for big cities and worsening in smaller cities, as well as some rural areas. "The total cost of traffic congestion to the U.S. economy in lost productivity and wasted motor fuel is almost $68 billion -- or $1,160 per traveler," according to the Texas Transportation Institute's annual study to quantify traffic congestion.

Telecommuting can offset that. "For every one percent reduction in the number of cars on the road there's a three percent reduction in traffic congestion," according to John Edwards, chairman and founder of the Telework Coalition.

3. Telecommuting benefits the environment. With the effects of global climate change already evident, companies are feeling pressure from customers, business partners, and legislators to be better environmental stewards. Implementing telecommuting programs is a great way for an organization to rack up green points, both with the public and with employees, while giving Mother Nature a break.

Just how much of an impact can telecommuting have on the environment? According to a 2007 report from the U.S. Consumer Electronics Association, 3.9 million people in the United States worked from home at least one day a week. By avoiding an average 22-mile commute to work, the practice saved about 840 million gallons of gas -- equal to taking 2 million cars off the road for a year. (The findings did take into account the increased power use at home that comes with telecommuting.) The report indicated that an estimated 53 million American workers could take up telecommuting, which would represent an annual reduction in CO2 emissions equivalent to taking more than 27 million vehicles off the road. Put another way, taking a million workers off the road can save 927,369 tons of CO2 per year, according to Work Wise UK/RAC Foundation.

4. Telecommuting is a big incentive for current and prospective employees. We're facing tough economic times, and just about everyone's feeling the pain -- even my cats, who now get generic cat food instead of Fancy Feast. One of the selling points for telecommuting is it's not just potentially good for the bottom line, as I've discussed; it can also be used as a reward to attract and retain good workers. Being able to work from home improves work-life balance, saves money on fuel and car repair, and relieves headaches and aggravation of daily commutes.

[ Sun's U.S. employees saved big-time on fuel and car repairs thanks to telecommuting. ]

For example, if your company has been forced to implement salary cuts or slice benefits, you can soften the blow by permitting employees to telecommute, whether part-time or every day. Alternatively, it can be an enticing and potentially less-expensive reward for good work in lieu of a pay raise.

Additionally, if you're wooing a would-be employee with a stellar record but can't quite meet his or her salary expectations (and/or can't afford to relocate the person), the promise of telecommuting could sway your prospect. According to a compensation survey of 1,400 CFOs conducted by Robert Half International, 46 percent said telecommuting is second only to salary as the best way to attract top talent; 33 percent said telecommuting was the top draw.

Although the business (and environmental) case for telecommuting is compelling, I'd never claim that implementation is easy. Advances in wireless computing and collaboration software, as well as increased availability of broadband, make telecommuting programs easier to implement from a technological standpoint.

[ Cisco has developed a "remote office in a box" to help get teleworkers quickly connected and up and running. ]

But there's still the matter of managing remote workers to be productive and connected with the rest of the organization. There are resources out there to help companies create an effective telecommuting program. One place to start: Do the opposite of "10 sure-fire ways to kill telecommuting."


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.