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Redefining Homework

Studies show that telework is being embraced by American employees and employers alike.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006
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Laptops, cell phones and broadband Internet access have made most workers tech-savvy. Such technology advances have also become a ticket out of the office

According to the 2005 American Interactive Consumer Study by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based ITAC, the Telework Advisory Group for WorldatWork, (formerly the International Telework Association and Council) and Milwaukee-based Dieringer Research Group, 'going to work' does not require leaving the house for millions of Americans.

Conducted in the fall of 2005, the national survey reveals that of 135.4 million American workers, more than 45 million work from home, at least part-time. Of that 45 million, respondents work in an average of 3.4 different locations on a regular basis annually.

Another 24 million Americans work at client or customer workplaces and nearly 21 million work from their cars.

The survey found that 15 million Americans do office work in outdoor locations, and nearly 8 million employees perform work duties while traveling. For at least one day per month, 21 million people work from home, and more than 22 million do so at least once per week.

One company that has reaped the benefits of a telework program is supply management and health-care information-technology provider McKesson Health Solutions, based in Newtown, Mass. The company began its telework program, Work@Home, in 2003 as a pilot program, comprised of 13 nurses. McKesson now has 400 nurses teleworking and 125 nurses in call centers, ready to answer medical inquiries.

Thanks to telework, "McKesson is able to adjust staffing to meet peak calling times without having a large number of under-utilized staff during office hours," says Mike Modiz, vice president of the company's operations and strategic projects.

Modiz says the program has made it easier for both the company and employees to deliver McKesson's 24/7 services. "The addition of the Work@Home program has had a positive improvement on our attrition rates," he says. "Attrition for Work@Home nurses is only 10 percent. Attrition is about 30 percent in the call-center environment."

A study -- Telework Benchmarking Study: Best Practices for a Large-Scale Implementation in Public and Private Sector Organizations, conducted from January to March 2006 by the Washington-based non-profit telework-advocacy group Telework Coalition -- reiterates that contentment among companies that have implemented telework plans.

Among the 13 organizations involved in the TelCoa study, more than 77,000 teleworkers and nearly 60,000 additional mobile workers were identified.

The organization claims teleworking allows employees to have a greater sense of pride in their work, a better work-life balance and save at the gas pumps. TelCoa also reports that teleworkers achieve higher performance ratings.

Chuck Wilsker, co-founder, president and CEO of TelCoa, says that the HR departments in the studied companies were pleased to see less turn-over because of their telework programs. "Turn-over is expensive," he says. "All of those hours spent on interviews."

In addition, telework reduces costs to employers (the TelCoa study found average cost-savings of $3,000 to $10,000 per employee), particularly in real estate, as well as boosts to recruitment, retention and better business continuity.

In the wake of 9/11 and the Katrina and Rita hurricanes, telework programs have played a significant role in simply allowing employees to continue doing their jobs and companies to keep doing business despite the literal destruction of their workplaces, according to the study.

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In most programs, formal, written telework-agreements are made between telework employees and their direct managers, according to TelCoa. Managers have the last word on who teleworks, where and when.

So with all of these employees out of the office and the managers handling employees themselves, how does the role of HR change?

Not much, according to Wilsker. "HR's role with teleworkers is no different than its role with in-office workers," Wilsker says. "A lot of telework training is just new employee training." Much of the employee training involves IT, as teleworkers need to understand how to work with company-supplied equipment.

And while telework programs don't usually originate in HR, there are "a lot of questions that HR asks first -- about employees working independently and being task-oriented as opposed to time-oriented," he says. Such candidates should be "self-motivated, task-oriented, driven and good achievers." The ability to work independently is obviously a necessity, he adds.

HR also must educate teleworkers on company policies and procedures, and ensure the health, safety and ergonomics of the teleworker's workspace. Overtime and hours-worked are still HR duties, as with any in-office employee.

Mutual Benefits

According to the TelCoa study, telework aids both employers and employees as well as society in general. With fewer people yawning through their morning commutes on the nation's highways, less gas is used and the air is cleaner.

Employees stand to save some money as well, according to The Best Places for Teleworking study by Sperling's BestPlaces and Intel Corp.

Washington, D.C. is ranked the best in telework-friendly employment according to the 2006 study, and those who telework just one day per week can save $488 in transportation costs and $2,708 in time-savings each year.

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