Telework: Transporting Workers into a Global Economy

By Michael J. Dziak 

Just a dozen years ago it was considered avant garde for an organization to allow employees to work from home. Today, increasing numbers of employees are quietly migrating away from noisy distracting offices to crank out productive work wherever they happen to be.  

With ubiquitous mobile technology, portable work, and high-speed digital “hot spots” within reach of PDAs, “26.6 million Americans worked at home in their primary job at least once a month” according to a recent eMarketer Spotlight Report. Research firm IDC projects more than 878 million remote workers “globally” by 2009.  

“Globally” is the operative word: Today’s technology makes communicating with an employee in London as easy as with one in a home office in Peachtree City, a positive trend in a global economy that increasingly requires workplace flexibility. Herman (cq) Trend Alert’s “Working 24/7” reported in 2005, “As employers respond to global relationships, where people in other parts of the world are working at times that require night work by local employees, this trend will grow.”  

And telecommuting must be counted as a cost-effective transportation solution in a funding-challenged Georgia. It’s beating transit in getting commuters out of their cars, according to a recent study by the Reason Foundation, which found that “telecommuting already tops mass transit commuting in 27 of the nation’s 50 largest cities.” Atlanta and Washington, D.C., top the nation in telecommuting growth, Reason found.  

More than that, telework has become an essential workplace tactic: In just 10 years, AT&T trimmed $30 million in annual real estate costs and recorded $150 million in extra hours of productive work from teleworkers. In 2004, 41 percent of AT&T management employees worked from home an average of one or two days per week; about 30 percent worked full time outside of the traditional office. As a bonus, the company found teleworkers are much more likely to stay put.  

Fortune magazine’s most recent review of “America’s 100 Best Companies to Work For” noted that, “Back in 1999 only 18 companies on the list allowed telecommuting; now 79 do.”  Consider telework pioneers like IBM, Merrill Lynch, Hewlett-Packard and even some federal agencies: Today, employees working from anywhere no longer raises an eyebrow.  

Teleworkers already exist in most companies, according to the META Group, which estimated in 2004 that “approximately 90 percent of organizations have users with some form of mobile or remote work requirement ranging from occasionally connected mobile users to road warriors.”

The practice also benefits those who continue to report to the traditional office, where dedicated but sick employees often carry germs to co-workers. A 2005 Los Angeles Times article concluded that employees really ought to have the option of working from home when they are sick. 

Telework offers a solution to many challenges common to organizations today, including reducing absenteeism and turnover, cutting commute times, improving management skills and internal communication, reducing office space or improving employee performance. It’s a solution that can be applied after an honest evaluation of organizational weaknesses and challenges.  

There are clear rules of engagement, because remote work presents workers with freedom and independence, and procedures must ensure that they meet or exceed work expectations while separating work from personal responsibilities. The rules to assure success must, for example, establish worker qualifications and training, communication routines, remote work safety and child care restrictions. Additionally, companies must invest in remote worker tools and support to ensure that teleworkers never become isolated socially or electronically.  

A critical element of telework success is proper mandatory training of managers and remote workers to establish rules, expectations and effective work environments. A survey released in November 2005 reported that 25 percent of teleworkers “admit they spend less than one hour on their office work when working from home, 53 percent spend less than three hours and only 14 percent put in a full eight hours.” 

The blame lies not in telework, however, and is more likely a pre-existing condition, where worker performance is not measured and accountability is lacking. At the same time, with a remote work environment, it’s important that managers base goals achievement, work expectations and performance measurement more on actual results than hours worked.

Telework is increasingly essential to contemporary organizations competing in a technology-based world. Much like turning an obese baby-boomer into a trim, active athlete, an organization that has retained obsolete, Industrial Age work and management habits will struggle with the transition; Meanwhile, the competitors of organizations fat with expensive, emptying offices are becoming the biggest winners. The newest generation of workers raised on Game Boys and computer-based training are natural teleworkers that management must accommodate or lose as the trend of worker mobility becomes the norm.

Michael Dziak, author, telework consultant and president of Peachtree City, Georgia-based InteleWorks, Inc., wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 17, 2006). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.