Give telecommuting the green light

Environmental and organizational needs, coupled with evolving technologies, makes telecommuting programs look better every day

Environmental and organizational needs, coupled with evolving technologies, make telecommuting programs look better every day

I love my morning commute. Sometimes, there are delays, though, thanks to a pile-up or a clean-up effort. The pile-up, however, is generally just laundry that needs to go into the wash. The clean-up occurs if my cat has decided to demonstrate her eco-concern by recycling her breakfast. (I applaud most recycling efforts, but I question the reusability value of hairballs.)

Generally, though, it's about 15 seconds from my bed to my desk. Yep, I'm a telecommuter. I work out of my home office in Sacramento 90 percent of the time; I head to the InfoWorld office in San Francisco, voluntarily, every other Friday.

I count myself fortunate that InfoWorld recognizes the value of offering telecommuting -- not just for me but for the company. Other companies do it, too: Apple, AT&T, Cisco, HP, Sun, Xerox, and Yahoo, just to name a few, have telework programs in place. In fact, according to the Telework Coalition, more than 45 million people telecommute at least once a week. In 2005, 44 percent of U.S. companies offered at least some telecommuting options, according to a survey by Mercer Human Resources Consulting. That figure was up from 32 percent in 2001. The greatest increase in the number of teleworkers, 57 percent, occurred in medium-sized businesses, according to the ITAC, the Telework Advisory Group for WorldatWork.

And there's an abundance of research out there demonstrating that telecommuting programs not only result in greater environmental benefits due to fewer pollution-spewing vehicles on the road, they deliver cost savings for organizations.

On top of the cost and environmental benefits, technological innovations (such as easily accessible and reliable high-speed Internet access, inexpensive and sturdy laptops, maturing collaboration products as well as SaaS, VoIP, VPNs, and so forth) contribute to making telecommuting increasingly attractive and viable for companies.

Profitting from telecommuting

The environmental benefits of telecommuting are pretty apparent, but business leaders no doubt want to be sure that giving employees the green light to telecommute yields bottom-line benefits. Based on the successes enjoyed by the various companies, the answer appears to be a resounding yes.

For starters, the ITAC found that employers can realize an annual per-employee savings of $5,000 through implementing telecommuting programs. "Your organization could save one office for every three teleworkers (that's about $2,000 per teleworker per year, or $200,000 per 100 teleworkers)," according to the Canadian Telework Assocation(CTA).

Case in point: Through Sun's telecommute program, called Sun Open Work Practice, around 2,800 employees work home three to five days a week; another 14,219 work remotely twice weekly, according to reports. The company says its efforts have resulted not only in 29,000 fewer tons of CO2 emissions -- but the company reaped $63 million in the last fiscal year by cutting 6,660 office seats.

Meanwhile, AT&T reports savings of $3,000 per office, for approximately $550 million, by eliminating or consolidating office space; about 25 percent of IBM's 320,000 workers worldwide telecommute, saving Big Blue some $700 million in real estate costs, according to the CTA.

Business benefits of letting workers do their jobs remotely don't stop with lower office space costs: Plenty of studies have demonstrated that telecommuters are more productive than their at-office counterparts. Conservative estimates suggest a 10 percent advantage. The Colorado Telework Coalition reports, however, that American Express's teleworkers produce 43 percent more business than employees at the office; Compaq teleworkers were found to be between 15 percent and 45 percent more productive than their office counterparts.

Relieve gas pains and congestion

From a broad environmental perspective, the potential gas savings alone from telecommuting are impressive. According to the 2005/2006 National Technology Readiness Survey (NTRS), we could save about 1.35 billion gallons of fuel if everyone who was able to telecommute did so just 1.6 days per week. That calculation is based on a driving average of 20 miles per day, getting 21 miles per gallon.

So if those of us who could telecommute did so, we'd spare our pocketbooks from gas and vehicular maintenance (a typical household spends 18 percent of its income in driving costs – more than it spends on food, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

We'd also spare our collective sanity with shorter, faster commutes, which are only expected to get worse as congestion worsens. Between 2002 and 2012, vehicle miles traveled by drive-alone commuters is expected to increase by at least 15 percent, generating an additional 43 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and EPA calculations.

Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration reports that "[t]he volume of freight movement alone is forecast to nearly double by 2020. Congestion is largely thought of as a big city problem, but delays are becoming increasingly common in small cities and some rural areas as well."

Telecommuting, however, can offset that. "For every 1 percent reduction in the number of cars on the road there's a 3 percent reduction in traffic congestion," according to John Edwards, chairman and founder of the Telework Coalition.

And congestion does take its toll on the economy: "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.

(Of course, fewer cars guzzling less gas means less air pollution, which is nice both for the Earth and for those of us who live on it.)

Tools for the telework trade

Much of telework's adoption can be attributed to the all-important technologies that keep workers connected to their bosses, peers, and customers. I can certainly attest to the value of good ol' e-mail, VPN, and IM to stay safely connected to work -- plus I have a pretty standard yet mostly reliable laptop that I easily carry when I do head to the office.

Broadband adoption, of course, has been a big catalyst for telecommuting adoption. According to The Dieringer Research Group, teleworkers using broadband from home swelled by 84 percent from 2003 to and 2004, up to 8.1 million.

Not surprisingly, VoIP has also proven beneficial for helping organizations improve telecommuting options. For example, F.W. Honerkamp, a Long Island laminate distributor, has found that its outsourced voice over IP system gives the company the flexibility to hire and retain people who might not otherwise be able to come into the office. "The VoIP system is our main telephone system, and it allows us to have customer service in one place. If someone calls, we can transfer them to the appropriate expert in [another] location right away, or they can contact that person directly," the company's COO Jeff Honerkamp told Network World.

"That person" might be a remote employee in Pennsylvania, but the caller is none the wiser.

Other collaboration tools have come a long way, too. InfoWorld has looked at its fair share of Web conferencing solutions, and our analysts have been impressed. Most recently, Oliver Rist got his hands on Microsoft's new RoundTable device, which, coupled with Microsoft Live Communication Server 2007, can provide meeting participants with the ability to not only share documents and applications, but also get a 360-degree panoramic view of the meeting room where the device is set up.

Of course, telecommuting requires planning, and it might not be right for every position at every company. There are also still misconceptions as to its potential value as some business leaders fret that their employees will goof off if they're not under constant in-office surveillance. And from the employee side, there's fear of being overlooked and forgotten when promotion opportunities come around.

Rightfully so, companies also still have security concerns. Without the proper equipment and training, an employee's home system can be hacked or stolen, which can be disastrous, as evidenced by the numerous laptop thefts we've seen in recent years.

The good news is, the potential cost (and environmental) savings and benefits are compelling, and we're at a place technologically where more companies can, and should, explore telecommuting programs. And there's an abundance of resources out there to help you get started.

Some of my favorite telecommuting resources follow:

What do you think about telecommuting? Does your company do it? Why or why not?


Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.