Aug 18 2009

Productivity Propellant

Businesses find that telework cuts costs and makes it easier for workers to do their jobs.

Photo: Quantrell Colbert

Grace Perry and Chris Croxton of Lathem put the policies in place to allow the manufacturer’s employees to telecommute.

On Fridays, Lathem’s Atlanta building is virtually empty, yet the company’s back-office operations continue to hum along. That’s because the plant shuts down once a week and many of its knowledge workers telecommute that day.

Lathem, a maker of time and attendance products, synchronized clock systems and small business security solutions, launched its telework program a few years ago to counter pain at the gas pump. “We had several employees who commuted long distances, and it got very expensive for them to come to work,” says Grace Perry, Lathem’s human resources director. Atlanta traffic ranks among the worst in the country; the average round-trip commute is 39.4 miles, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Nearly 70 percent of Lathem’s 105-person staff enjoy a compressed workweek of four 10-hour shifts, while another 10 percent telework. “It’s a big savings to employees in terms of the cost of commuting and wear and tear on their vehicle, as well as a time saver,” says Chris Croxton, network administrator at the company.

Perry adds telework is a low-cost benefit companies can offer that’s especially appreciated when businesses can’t grant salary increases. “All the way around, telework makes for a happier workforce,” she says. “It’s definitely a morale builder.”

Not only does telework foster work/life balance and reduce commuting costs, but the employer benefits, too. The business gains cost and energy efficiencies from shutting down on Fridays, and the telecommuting program aids recruitment and retention. For these reasons, many other businesses are taking notice.

“What we’re seeing overall is interest in telework not only from just the employees, but in organizations looking at the bottom line and how it can really affect real estate cost savings,” says Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange.

Widespread Appeal

Health and disability management consultancy HDM-Solutions has a virtual staff spread throughout multiple geographic locations and time zones. Founder Maria Henderson works from her home outside Denver, and the company’s employees telework, too.

Not having to lease office space allows Henderson to keep her company’s costs down. “Compared to the big consulting firms we compete with, our hourly rates are less than half of theirs,” she says. “It’s all related to overhead.”

At TechHouse, all but one employee telecommutes. Kathy Durfee, CEO of the small IT consultancy in Bradenton, Fla., says, “I am leasing traditional office space for one employee who likes to work in the office, but I just met with the landlord and want to try hoteling.” Durfee estimates her company saves about $5,000 a month in facilities costs since implementing telework.

GeoConcepts Engineering launched its telework initiative in 2001 in part to lure a key employee the geotechnical engineering firm was courting. The potential new hire would have had a difficult commute, so President Vivian Lewis compromised and allowed her to telework.

“It’s a win/win situation,” says Lewis. While only a small portion of the Virginia-based business’s 53 employees telecommute, that option is open to more employees depending on the nature of the position. Such an arrangement boosts productivity and gives workers more flexibility, she says.

Telework appeals not only to workers, but to customers and clients, too. For example, HDM-Solutions’ Henderson says governmental agencies have rated her company higher on request for proposals because telework gives the business a smaller carbon footprint. “We’ve had clients specifically choose us for that,” she notes.

In addition, when considering a telework investment, don’t overlook the business continuity advantages the technology affords. “If anything happened where I wasn’t able to get into work, I can still get into my computer, process payroll and have the business function,” Lathem’s Perry says. “It might be limited, but remotely you can get a lot done.”

Tools of the Trade

At Lathem, launching a telework program didn’t require a large capital investment. “It wasn’t a lot of expense because we already had the technology in place,” says Perry. “It was just a matter of managing what we had and applying it.”

Run The Numbers

The Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership devoted to demonstrating the value of telework, offers a calculator to compute the potential cost savings and environmental gains of telework. Register at http://www.telework

Teleworkers use their home computers and must have an active antivirus software subscription. Workers are required to have a broadband connection in order to telecommute because dial-up is too slow for them to work efficiently, notes Croxton.

Employees gain access to all the files and applications they need to do their jobs through Microsoft Remote Desktop terminal server, and all work is stored on the server.

Croxton notes that users need their office credentials to log in. For even more security, he’s in the process of rolling out a WatchGuard virtual private network to give teleworkers a direct tunnel into the Lathem network.

Workers use Microsoft Outlook to keep their colleagues apprised of whether they’re in the office, teleworking or unavailable. And a Voice over IP PBX allows users to log in and forward their calls to an outside number. “The technology is very seamless,” Perry says. “Callers won’t know if you’re at home or work.”

If teleworkers have IT problems, call-center staff can use Citrix GoToAssist for remote troubleshooting. For any issues that can’t be solved remotely, staff must bring in their PCs. The arrangement works well for the most part, though “there’s always the challenge of trying to support hardware and software that you didn’t necessarily install,” Croxton points out. “Everybody’s environment is a little different.”

At TechHouse, staff pair notebook computers with a docking station or multiple monitors when they’re in their home offices. “My vice president of sales and business development uses a new Lenovo ThinkPad that fits in her purse. It’s really lightweight,” says Durfee.

The IT consulting firm’s teleworkers use a VPN and Microsoft Sharepoint to share files and documents, as well as a hosted VoIP solution to forward calls to wherever they happen to be.

What do you consider the most beneficial aspect of telecommuting?

26% Allows for continuity of operations
26% Fosters work/life balance
19% Improves employee morale
14% Boosts worker productivity
9% Don’t consider it beneficial
6% Reduces real estate costs

Source: CDW Poll of 280 BizTech readers

Eliminating Bad Connections

With solid technology in place, some of the obstacles that companies encounter when rolling out telework programs are cultural.

“It’s not something that works for everybody because you don’t have face-to-face contact,” says GeoConcepts’ Lewis. “There are things that come up in the office that a teleworker can’t address.”

Lathem requires employees interested in teleworking to obtain manager approval, then Perry reviews the application to validate that work can be done from home. Non-exempt employees, for example, aren’t permitted to telecommute because of the difficulty of tracking their time.

“In the beginning, the hardest thing in adopting telework is trust — trust among the employees who aren’t participating and managers who haven’t worked with this situation before,” Perry says. Though most teleworkers prove more productive because they tend to work longer hours, it’s important to be able to back out of the arrangement.

Both Perry and Croxton recommend starting with a small pilot program and working out the kinks before rolling the telework program out to a large audience. “Make sure your infrastructure is in place and working properly, and roll out telework in a slower fashion,” Croxton recommends.

As small business leaders can attest, the IT and management investment in telework pays impressive dividends. “It kind of puts a smile on everybody’s face,” Croxton concludes.