Alison Lee Satake SPECIALIZING IN BUSINESS & SCIENCE REPORTING

Alison Lee Satake
Drive to telecommute still strong for some firms

Worcester Business Journal

Illustration courtesy of New England Business Media

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Yahoo’s recently announced ban on telecommuting sparked shock and surprise among employers, especially since one of the pioneers of the Internet revolution seems to be turning its back on an Internet-fueled work perk.

Telecommuting has indeed become part of the workplace culture in the United States. According to data from TeleworkResearchNetwork.com, telecommuting increased 73 percent to 3.1 million workers nationwide from 2005 to 2011

Since its initial announcement late last month, Yahoo has released a statement defending its new policy, which takes effect in June: “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo right now.”

So, how do companies determine what telecommuting policies are right for them?

“Anybody that has a large amount of individual contributor processing-type of work (such as customer-service and data-entry) that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of collaboration or teamwork, those industries tend to be at the forefront of developing telecommuting policies,” said John Michael, vice president and general manager of business interiors for Framingham-based Staples Inc.

The global office supplier has employees who work remotely across the country. Logistics, such as the distance between the nearest Staples office and an employee’s home, and if there is enough space in that office, helps determine if an employee will work on-site or from home, he said.

“A lot of the foundation of Staples is acquiring business in other locations,” Michael said. As a result, Staples’ executive team is not solely based in Framingham, with about half working remotely. Michael himself works out of Raleigh, N.C.

“We really look at it on a case-by-case basis,” said Jill Lebow, director of employee relations at Fallon Community Health Plan (FCHP) in Worcester. The company implemented its flexible work policy in 2004, because technology had enabled more employees to telecommute. Also, the ability to work independently is a key characteristic FCHP evaluates before it grants such flexible work arrangements, Lebow said.

At Marlborough-based Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU), it comes down to experience. Of DCU’s 150 call center staff, 16 telecommute. They have worked on-site in the call center for at least five years and are considered the more experienced agents within the company.DCU has considered expanding its telecommuting workforce to other areas, such as the collections department.

But telecommuting isn’t for everyone.

Telecommuters may miss out on those serendipitous conversations at the water cooler that can lead to groundbreaking ideas, which is a trade-off, Michael said.

“I would miss the office. I wouldn’t want to work from home. I like my office,” Lebow added.

But for some companies, letting employees work from home isn’t that simple.

“Some of the challenges are you really need the systems in place to be able to measure productivity and activity to make sure everyone is confident that it’s working,” Michael said. Staples tracks its customer-service representatives’ productivity and can compare the work of at-home versus on-site employees.

Similarly, DCU keeps track of employees’ productivity including the number of customer calls, emails and instant messages conducted by on-site and off-site employees.

Hopkinton-based data management company, EMC Corp., also adopted new technology, which includes mobile apps to access files, find co-workers and book conference rooms remotely to support its telecommuter program, which it launched in 2009, according to ML Krakauer, executive vice president of human resources.

Win-Win Scenario

This month, Staples released results from a survey of 150 telecommuters and 150 business decision makers across the country that showed 93 percent of employees believe telecommuting programs are “mutually beneficial.”

Flexibility is one of the top three requests of employees, said Donna Russo, senior vice president of human resources and training at DCU.

“Their family needs outweigh [work] at this time in their lives. That’s OK too. It’s all about flexibility and where you are in your life and how we can make this work for employee and employer,” she said.

Hiring telecommuting staff is part of FCHP’s strategy as it expands its healthcare services throughout the state. The option to work remotely has been a draw for its new Registered Nurse case managers, who must travel to patients’ homes, as well as hospitals and other providers. Telecommuting helps them manage their time and be more efficient when they visit multiple sites, Lebow said.

Fifty-three percent of business decision makers said telecommuting leads to more productive employees, according to the Staples survey.

To test employee productivity, DCU launched a pilot telecommuting program in 2005 in which four call center agents work from home. The results were positive.

“The volume of emails was higher and the quality of email responses was top-notch. I think they were more focused and had fewer distractions,” said Daniel LaBarre, DCU’s information center manager, who oversees 16 of the company’s 150 call center employees working remotely in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey.

Turnover is expensive and tends to be high among call center workers, but telecommuting can serve as a valuable retention tool.

“We’ve been able to retain some very valuable employees by granting them the ability to telecommute upon their request,” Lebow said.

Off-site workers can cut overhead costs and ensure continuity in service, especially when they work over the weekends or on snow days.

“There is a huge cost benefit for the employer in that we have open space and equipment,” Russo said. This helps cut utility costs. DCU has 836 employees and she’d like to see as many of them become telecommuters as possible.

She sees the telecommuting option as good for company morale. Similarly 75 percent of business decision makers surveyed by Staples saw their telecommuting employees were happier and took fewer days off.

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