Telework: Taming A New Frontier

Eight years ago when a friend told me about her coworker who lived 3 or 4 hours away from their company and worked from home most of the week, I was astounded.  Now I’m in an even more extreme situation, living a couple of thousand miles away from company headquarters and working from home all the time, and it’s not that unusual.  Last year’s Telework Enhancement Act 2010 even requires federal agencies to give people the option to telework.  While teleworking isn’t the frontier anymore, it still isn’t quite civilized land.  Last week, I got to meet on VSee with Chuck Wilsker the co-founder and CEO of the Telework Coalition (TelCoa) and hear about his work in the telework wilderness for the past 13 years ago. Prior to TelCoa, Chuck was in the telecommunications industry for 30 years.

ME:  What changes have you seen in telework in the past 13 years?

CHUCK:  Technology.  When I started doing this had I had DSL 768 Kbps. I download 30 Mbps now, and I upload 8 Mbps. Speed has made a tremendous difference.  Computers are faster and cost less, too.  Then there is video calling.  I tried some of these things years ago, and it worked with 1 person. It worked with 2. Three was okay.  Four would get a little jumpy because most people would have 500 Kbps or 768 Kbps, and it’s not symmetrical.  So even if they had faster download, the upload was really, really slow.  We were just really limited.  Gas prices have gone up, so it’s more expensive to get to work.  Some people can’t afford to drive to work anymore. People have started becoming environmentally conscious, and they want to know what can they do to be greener.  Organizations and businesses want to know how to save money with the economic downturn.

ME:  What is the single most important thing to making telework successful?

CHUCK:  Again, technology.  Is it perfect? Not in a lot of situations.  But it can work if people will take advantage of it.  There is a lot of new technology that is available to us, like what we’re doing now.  Isn’t cool that people can now be in there home and office and see and talk to people somewhere else and not have to travel?

ME:  What do you think still keeps people from embracing telework?

CHUCK:  I think people are just afraid to try something new.  I get a lot of managers asking “How can I tell if you’re working if you’re not in the office?”  My response is “How can I tell if you’re working if you’re in the office?” I can peek in and see you on the computer.  Does this mean you’re not getting on Facebook? You’re not on Twitter? You’re not getting personal e-mail? You’re not buying your husband a present or taking a look at a YouTube a friend sent you?  These are things we all do.  How many hours of productive work does someone get done in the office?  Most of these are just B.S. excuses.

People talk about not being able to interact, but we’re interacting now, we’re meeting now.  Video so takes away this big negative [of telework], this “I need to collaborate. I need to see. I need to talk to. I need to meet. Nobody is here but I don’t want to just do it on a conference call. I want to be able to look at people.”  Families with Skype do it all the time so grandparents can see grandkids, but not as many people in the corporate environment are doing it.  It’s just the strangest thing.  Sure, a business meeting is not as fun without the $4000 meals and nice hotel service, but the expense in time, money, environmental impact can quickly add up.  Really they just need to try it.

ME:  So what can organizations do to make telework work?

CHUCK:  The secret to telework,  we tell people is you need to have the policies, processes, procedures.  In other words, you need to know what’s expected of you and your boss needs to know what he expects of you.  You need to know what you expect of each other, things like when do I expect you to be there. Are you using antivirus software? Antispyware? Firewalls? We need to know what’s going on. We need to know if you’re sick and how you’re going to handle it.  Are you going to take off?  Are you going to take off if the weather is bad?  Let’s talk about the federal government for example.  Let’s say your telework day is Tuesday, and on Wednesday the office closes for weather, you’re still expected to work even though the guys that don’t telework are off for the day.

ME:  What do you personally like about teleworking?

CHUCK:  I like to know that if I’m wasting time, I’m wasting time for me.  For example, tomorrow I have a meeting.  For me to go to this one hour meeting takes me half a day, because I have to get up, shower, shave, get dressed (which takes longer than putting on my shorts and a tank), drive through traffic, park my car, get to the building, shoot the breeze with people beforehand, and get to the meeting.  Then after the meeting, I have to go back to the car, drive home…it’s an easy 4 hours.

With teleworking, I don’t have to sit in traffic every day which is a complete waste of time.  When I was going into an office, it was an hour and forty minutes of driving from work and sitting in traffic each day.  On a good day it took two and half hours.

Here’s another example: My wife, about a year or two ago, she’s getting ready to go to work (I would get up when she’s about halfway ready) and she says, “This isn’t fair!”  I said, “What’s the matter?” She says,”It isn’t fair that I have to get up before you. I have to take a shower. I have to put on my make up and do my hair.  Here you are getting up half an hour after me. You’re not taking a shower. All you’re doing is throwing on the same clothes you had on yesterday, and you’re walking downstairs to your office!”

So what do I like?  I like not being confined–not being confined in the car. I like being able to get up and move around.  I like having the dogs around.  I like that now that it’s summertime, I can go out and water my garden a couple of times a day. I like that I when I’m talking with my partner on the phone I can go out and sit by the pond.  I like being able to go to the fridge to get something to eat or drink if I’m hungry.  I like how if I want to exercise everything is in the room right next to me where I can do situps and pushups without having to go anywhere.  It saves me a lot of time, and it saves me a lot of money.  It’s good for my mental health.

ME:  How is TelCoa making a difference?

CHUCK:  Even though we’re the Teleworker Coalition, we really do a lot more because telework touches so many different aspects.  We’re involved in energy conservation and energy security because gas is getting expensive, and we get our oil from people who really don’t like us…in Venezuela, the Middle East.  Telework is one way we can conserve energy and be more self-sufficient.

We’re concerned about the environment.  In areas like Richmond where you are and the Chesapeake Bay, most of the pollution is from cars. If we could take 30% of the cars off the road during rush hour the air will be cleaner, and our water will be cleaner, and we’ll be preserving flora and fauna.

We look at opportunities for the disabled, elderly, and those living in rural areas.  Did you know half the disabled people in the U.S are unemployed?  Do you know what is their number one problem? Transportation.  Telework eliminates that issue for them.  It’s also good for older workers who maybe need to work a few days a week, but find it difficult to go into the office, and it brings more work opportunities out to those living in rural areas.

ME:  What’s the most striking figure you’ve come across in your research?

CHUCK:  I know a fellow in Virginia who out of 40 people, he now has half (20) of his people working from home full time. He cut way down on office space, and I asked him, “Do you know how much you’re saving?” He said “400,000 a year” which was really neat because he told me this a year or two ago.  This is was three years after we had come up with the number that employers could save 20k per employee they sent home to work.  He saved on overhead, no one quit, customers were happier because they could always reach someone, and employees were happy because they could stay at home.

If you think about it, employers spend an enormous amount to bring you into an office.  There’s the rent, furniture, equipment, maintenance fees, amenities like coffee, paper towels, etc.

Employees also save.  In a study we did about 5 years ago, we found that the average teleworker with a 40 minute commute will save about $8000…take home…after taxes.  That’s time and money savings in gas, tires and oil changes, work clothes, eating out.  Plus they’re more productive and happier at home because of better work life balance.

ME:  Is there anything else people should know about teleworking?

CHUCK:  Telework is not for everyone and it’s not for every job.  Whether it’s telework, telemedicine, teleschool.  If you lived in an apartment and had a couple of kids running around that would not be for you.  And a lot of jobs can’t be teleworked.  It’s hard to greet people at a front desk if you don’t have a front desk.  More people are doing online commerce, but still most of us go to the grocery store, and there are times you want to touch them, feel them look at them.  You also have to be careful of your dogs barking!

ME:  Where do you see telework going in the future?

CHUCK:  It’s just going to get easier and more convenient.  With DSl, cable, fiber, now wireless…it’s really easy now to communicate with people.  Smartphones.  I used to take my laptop to meetings.  I don’t do that anymore because I have [holds up phone] this.  Look how many people don’t have landlines anymore.  Now you have a phone call, a [phone] conference, a videoconference all on your handheld and this saves a lot of time.

Summary:

  • Telework is technology-enabled
  • Current video conferencing capabilities mitigate the negatives of telework (not being able to meet people face-to-face)
  • Successful telework  must have the policies, processes, and procedures in place.
  • Employers can save $20,000 per employee they send home to work.
  • Employees can save $8,000 (after taxes) and enjoy better work/life balance.
  • Telework benefits energy conservation, energy security,  environmental sustainability, the disabled,  the elderly, and rural workers.

TelCoa is a non-profit corporation based in the Washington, D.C. area that addresses telework and telecommunications issues through research, consulting, education, and advocacy.

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