Is there any truth to the image of telecommuters as pajama-clad, unshaven workers who get easily distracted by child care, personal telephone calls or housework?
Probably not, according to AT&T Corp., which tracked its employees' telework patterns for the past 10 years. In fact, the company's surveys show that its teleworkers are more productive than those who work in an office.
Most large companies today have at least a few people who telecommute from home, if not on a daily basis, then with some sort of regularity. With longer commutes, child-care issues, a global economy and, of course, much better technology, it only makes sense to allow workers to work from home at times.
About 90 percent of AT&T's management employees work from home at least some of the time, while 30 percent of them work completely from home. Other workers have the ability to spend days at home on an as-needed basis.
But with our new world of widespread telecommuters come growing pains. Telecommuting mistakes can cost companies money, productivity and employee morale, according to AT&T. Its own "casual" study of worst practices (that's such a nice change from all the best-practices research out there) found that companies don't trust employees to be productive, said Cathy Martine, senior vice president of Internet telephony at AT&T. Companies also face problems in that teleworkers miss face-to-face contact. But those companies that don't permit teleworking fall flat during weather or other disasters, when employees could have worked from home, even if they could not travel to the office.
Perhaps the most important thing, not for the workers but for their firms: Companies do not take advantage of real estate savings.
Organizations don't add up what they could save in real estate costs if they allowed workers to telecommute. You telecommute, your company doesn't pay to rent office space. According to the National Association of Realtors, office rents will rise by 2.8 percent in 2005, a seven-fold increase over last year's 0.4 percent increase. Because part of its workforce is remote, AT&T said it saved $34 million in real estate costs last year. AT&T has ended leases on some brick-and-mortar offices. AT&T is not alone. JetBlue Airways Corp. has 900 work-at-home reservation agents. Office Depot Inc. is closing many of its call centers this year, to instead have its employees work from home, and most telephone agents with 1-800-FLOWERS.COM Inc. work from home.
AT&T also found that it made sense to have people work from home to keep the company running, according to Martine. During the Florida hurricanes, employees were able to work because they had fully set-up offices at home. They would not have otherwise made it into an office. In a study conducted by the International Telework Association and Council in May, 41 percent of companies in 2004 did not have telework in their business continuity plans, while 21 percent said it was already highly integrated into company plans.
"When you look at the business continuity and the ability to work from home when there's a hurricane or disasters like what we've gone through in D.C., and can continue operations even if you can't go to the office, that's crucial," said Alice Borrelli, vice president of government affairs for AT&T, who also works with policymakers on ways to encourage teleworking.
According to the ITAC, the number of employed Americans who performed any kind of work from home, from as little as one day a year to full time, grew from 41.3 million in 2003 to 44.4 million in 2004, a 7.5 percent growth rate.
Borrelli spends a handful of days each month working from her home office in Oak Hill, Va. She schedules face-to-face meetings all on one day.
Martine also said many companies assume working from home will result in less productive employees. However, the opposite is typically true, she argues. People who work from home are "less subject to distraction. They feel more in control in terms of that interruption when people just pop into your office. That doesn't happen," she said.
Borrelli started teleworking about 12 years ago when there was a breakdown in her child care. She wanted to be home in the afternoon to greet her children after school. So she pitched the company on a part-time teleworking schedule. It worked out well for Borrelli and her company, so she still does it today.
With a telework schedule, it is important to plan and organize, she said, otherwise that lack of productivity may come true. In an advocacy position, she has many face-to-face meetings, but she doesn't need to have them every day. So when she has a project where she needs to concentrate, she schedules a day to work from home. When she needs to meet with people, she works that into her weekly schedule and goes to the D.C. office.
The planning and organizing have helped her immensely, and she argues that she is much more productive than if she sat in an office downtown all week. "When I'm doing my telework day, I feel like I have to get twice as much done to prove it's working," Borrelli said.
Working from home also naturally cuts down on commuting time. "It just saves so much time when you . . . don't have a two-hour commute, don't have to put makeup on, get dressed," she said.
Finally, that thing we all love about interaction with co-workers can actually make us less productive. So a day holed up in a home office every now and then could be enough to prove to workers, and their bosses, that teleworking makes us more productive than if we trudged into the office every day. "You don't have to check in with everyone to see how their evening was. You save a lot of chitchat time," Borrelli said. "It's just a much more productive way of getting a job done."
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