Friday, August 17, 2007

How to optimize teleworkers

Flexible work schedules can help companies reduce costs and retain in-demand talent, but managers need to do more than set up remote access to enable telework to thrive

By Denise Dubie, Network World, 06/18/07

As telework initiatives spread, managers interested in adopting the flexible work model must set use policies, deploy enabling technologies and establish employee goals to guarantee their telework initiative is a success.

All indications point to the number of teleworkers increasing in U.S. companies. A recent survey of about 200 HR managers by talent and outsourcing provider Yoh found that 81% of companies have remote work policies in place and 67% of respondents said they expect telecommuting will increase in the next two years.

Your take on telework

According to WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz., nonprofit professional association focused on human resources issues, about 12.5 million of U.S. employees take advantage of telework today.

“Telework programs typically start with one employee coming forward making a request to work out of the office for a day or two per month, and from there, telework can grow like a weed within an organization,” says Rose Stanley, the work-life practice leader at WorldatWork.

Taking the telework leap

Companies faced with a distributed workforce and limited resources for real estate often turn to telework.

For Linda Casey, senior operations manager at McKesson Health Solutions in Broomfield, Colo., telework programs help her staff virtual call centers for new clients, retain tenured and valued employees, and cut real estate costs.

“Many companies can be very reluctant to venture into telework, but once they do, there is no turning back,” says Linda Casey, senior operations manager at McKesson.

For McKesson, the benefits range from money saved on real estate -- to the tune of $1 million per year -- to increased scheduling efficiencies, also saving the company about $1 million.

“Telework helps give us diversity in hiring new people, because clients like it when we employ local talent, and telework makes it possible for us to keep tenured employees if for some reason they need to relocate,” she explains.

Yet Casey reports McKesson’s success wasn’t guaranteed when the company launched its telework program in 2003.

“There are some employees that just are not suited to telework; they simply need more social interaction. And then there are those that just don’t work,” she says.

Creating virtual communications

Clear and ongoing communications play a big part in telework’s success, experts say.

“Employers must sit down with employees to determine how they will check in with each other, how the work will be completed and how employee performance will be measured without as much face time between manager, co-workers and the teleworker,” says Jane Anderson, director of the Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education (MITE) in Minneapolis, Minn.

Managers need to document telework policies that detail manager’s expectations for communications.

“Managers’ number one fear is losing control over employees’ productivity when they are not in the office,” says Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange in Alexandria, Va.

“Performance has to be focused on actual work output and not the perception of working. In many cases, teleworkers can have fewer distractions and tend to be more productive than their in-office counterparts,” she says.

And the relationship with those in-office counterparts is just as important as the interaction between teleworkers and their managers.

“People working at home fear there is a perception they are not actually working, and often will overdo it and work much harder to prove they deserve the same respect as in-office co-workers,” says Jack Nilles, co-founder and president of management consulting firm JALA International in Los Angeles.

Others say teaching all employees the benefits of telework and fostering communications between colleagues with video and teleconferences, on-site meetings and social gatherings will help employees continue to work toward the same goals.

Adding enabling technologies

Part of enabling communications involves companies adopting new technologies to keep teleworkers in touch with the home office.

Teleworkers must have at least the same technology available to them as their in-office counterparts.

“The technological requirements have to be there and employees need to be trained upfront on how to meet those requirements working outside the office,” Telework Exchange’s Auten says.

With baby boomers exiting the workforce, more companies will find new employees using mobile communications in their day-to-day lives, making the idea of instant messaging, texting and cell-phone use more standard for office operations.

Companies also have the choice to work with vendors offering new collaboration tools to enable telework in their organization.

“Teleworking can put a big technology burden on some companies,” says Jeff Kaplan, managing director of consultancy ThinkStrategies. “[Software-as-a-service] and managed services providers are drafting their managed service agreements to include not only the centralized office but also the customer’s teleworkers.”

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