Telework Still a Work in Progress


New data finds the number of teleworkers has gone down over the past few years -- despite the ubiquity of remote-work-enabling technology -- and experts say the sagging economy may be just one reason for the slip.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012
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Despite much being said in HR circles and publications -- including this one -- about workforces going mobile, latest numbers from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork and Brookfield, Wis.-based Dieringer Research Group Inc. indicate otherwise . . . or at least suggest the mobility/telework movement is more of a crawl.

In Telework 2011, a WorldatWork Special Report, based on the latest data available collected by both companies, the total number of people working from home or remotely in 2010 was 26.2 million, down from 33.7 million in 2008.

Though the report does take into account that "the decline likely is due to a combination of factors [such as] fewer Americans in the workforce overall due to high unemployment, higher anxiety surrounding job security and lack of awareness of telework options," the finding nevertheless underscores a teleworking slowdown -- perhaps even a stall.

(The numbers include both WorldatWork's 537 employer responses to a poll that ran Oct. 20 to Nov. 2, 2010, and more than 1,000 employee responses to a December 2010 poll by Dieringer. Both companies define teleworkers as employees or contractors working remotely at least one day per month during normal business hours.)

"When employee data was collected in December 2010," the report states, "the average American worker was more concerned with job security than with taking advantage of opportunities to telework."

Still, it says, this is "the first time since WorldatWork began studying the telework phenomenon in 2003 [that] the number of teleworkers has dropped."

Another recent study by the Alexandria, Va.-based Telework Exchange suggests one reason for fewer teleworkers today is an inability on the part of companies that allow it to fully utilize the technology that supports it. In that study, about 76 percent of federal workers interviewed said their agencies aren't using videoconferencing to their fullest capabilities.

Jack Heacock, senior vice president of The Telework Coalition, a Washington-based organization that lobbies in favor of telecommuting, thinks advocating for more videoconferencing in support of telework should certainly be going on in more HR organizations, but is simply one part of a "huge opportunity for HR to take a real leadership position on this" as a cost-saving, productivity-enhancing strategy -- an opportunity HR does not seem to be embracing.

Undoubtedly, he says, "the technology is getting better and better for making this kind of work more feasible and productive." Not only are web-conferencing and mobile-communication tools becoming more sophisticated, so are predictive-screening techniques and approaches to identifying candidates most suited to telework.

He cites the Ottawa-based Bank of Canada and Chicago-based Furst Person as two companies leading the way in assessing job candidates for telework arrangements. Salt Lake City-based, he says, has a whole suite of services that provide real ways to turn call centers into cloud-based operations, something he sees as a "huge, lucrative and productive direction" all employers should be going in.

"So where are the HR leaders advocating and out in front on this?" Heacock says. "This is a huge way for HR to contribute to their organizations' productivity and bottom line. Very rarely is HR given an opportunity to get out in front of something; here it is. Why aren't they taking this argument to the CEOs and COOs and other top executives?"

That argument, he says, includes higher retention and smaller training bills "because people are staying with you longer, because they're happier teleworking; [HR] can be golden in the eyes of the organization."

Knowledge transfer and "corporate memory," as Heacock puts it, "will also benefit through better use of technology," because older workers who prefer more flexible schedules and "who want to work more productively from home" in coaching, mentoring and consulting roles will be less likely to retire before sharing all they know.

Moving costs would be reduced, as would corporate taxes, he says, because, "as it is, corporations are working very hard to avoid the taxes they have to pay when people work outside their governmental jurisdictions."

Marianne Langlois, global process executive in Jacksonville, Fla., for Atlanta-based NorthgateArinso, agrees HR needs to lead the global-mobility and teleworking charge. "HR professionals," she says, "need to be the change agents for this; they need to embrace the changing role of the HR department and make sure they're conversant in the [predominantly self-service and cloud] technology that makes this mobility possible.

"Your role in HR is to make sure you're the evangelist for the changes that are happening, like them or not," she adds.

HR leaders also need to begin planning for this workforce of the future by taking into account four key considerations, Langlois says:

*     The rising importance of incentive programs tailored specifically to the evolved workforce, encompassing different cultures, values and languages. 

*     The need for recruiting tools adaptable to a globalized market. This, she says, "goes well beyond job boards" and now encompasses social media sites such as LinkedIn, and new and ever-improving self-scheduling tools for interviews.

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*     Reduced administration and heightened security in payroll software. With this self-service explosion, coupled with cloud-based access to immediate and complete information, HR will, again, "need to master this technology and learn its language," says Langlois, so people in this new work reality aren't accessing the wrong information. The challenge is huge, she says, but "there's never been a better time for technology to enable those processes."

*     Administrative cost savings by empowering employees with self-service technology. The challenge for HR here will be to wisely and strategically reconfigure people's roles once the administrative tasks have been filtered out to self-servicing employees. The possibilities, Langlois says, "are huge."

Despite this need for HR to make a better business argument and lead the way toward more effective telework strategies and initiatives, Heacock doesn't think the mobility evolution is as stalled as the WorldatWork/Dieringer study suggests.

The problem, he says, comes down to how we're defining teleworker. The one-day-a-month criterion established by the researchers isn't realistic, nor does it reflect the workforce of today, he says.

"I think this study isn't taking into account all the people out there who carry their laptops with them and do work away from the office a little here and a little there," Heacock says. The workforce is certainly increasingly mobile, he adds, with the line between life and work growing ever fainter in a rapidly evolving 24/7 business model.

"A lot of people just don't think of doing things remotely as telework," he says. "It's safe to say that the numbers of teleworkers are going up exponentially, but just aren't being defined as such."

Nor are their growing ranks being touted or broadcast, he adds. At many companies he comes into contact with, HR leaders and managers are still keeping flexible work arrangements quiet and "on the sly," says Heacock, as if those employers are simply afraid of putting such arrangements in writing in employee handbooks.

"There's a fear factor," he says surrounding this kind of change.

Whatever remote and mobile workers' actual numbers are, there would be millions more if top executive teams would truly embrace the concept and encourage and train managers to "manage to results" instead of face time or office time, says Heacock.

"Why the reluctance?" he says. "I hear all this 'hoo-haw' about trust, that employers aren't sure they can trust that their workers are actually working at home when they say they are. I say, 'If you can't trust your workers, then you shouldn't have hired them in the first place.' "

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