Tele-Commuting Trend Taking Off for Small Biz

One of the fast-growing trends in small business these days is teleworking ‑ employees working from home or away from the company’s main office. Surging gas prices driving up the already high cost of commuting and growing environmental concerns are just the most recent and headline-grabbing inducements that make telework increasingly attractive to both employers and employees.

Why does telework all of a sudden make so much sense? And what do you need to enable employees to work away from the office?

The benefits, some quantifiable, include reduced operating costs, increased productivity, better ability to recruit talent, and a more nimble, responsive organization with fewer vulnerabilities. To make telecommuting work, you may need some new technology, but it doesn’t have to be terribly expensive and most of it will pay dividends in other ways.

Even more, important, experts say, is thinking through the larger implications, especially the human factors, and performing due diligence on technology and other telework-related decisions.

More and more companies are doing it. According to a March 2008 report from consulting and systems integration firm CDW Corp., 36 percent of private sector organizations now permit teleworking, and 14 percent of employees are actually doing it. Telework can mean anything from working full time at home, to telecommuting one day a week, to staying home and working when a blizzard or power outage hits.

More telling indicators that companies taking telework seriously, CDW said, are the number of telework-permitting firms with formal policies in place (65 percent in 2008, up from 40 percent last year) and the number with plans to extend technical support to teleworkers (up from 49 percent to 76 percent.)

Storm Coming

As topical as gas prices and green consciousness are, a bunch of other business and market drivers have been swirling together and gaining force over the past few years. Not the least of them is technology evolution.

“Telecommuting was done in the past to a certain extent,” said Jayanthe Angl, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group. “But technology today, especially remote-access capabilities, makes it’s more feasible for more job functions.”

The prime technological prerequisite is reliable, inexpensive broadband access in the home. That wasn’t always available, now it is.

Broadband enables secure technologies and services that let employees remotely access data on company servers. It’s also IP phone systems and services that let workers appear to be in the office – and use all the features of the office phone system – even when they’re at home, in an airport or in the back of a cab.

Availability of technology alone wouldn’t persuade hundreds of large companies and federal agencies and departments to establish telework programs. Telework has to deliver real benefits, and it does. Small firms may have even more to gain than bigger ones, argued CDW director of technical services and solutions Firooz Ghanbarzadeh.

“One of their challenges is that they have to do more with fewer people,” he said. “With that limited, yet so valuable resource, you cannot afford to box them into a specific location or times for them to be as productive as they can be.”

Ghanbarzadeh believes that telework is a necessity for small businesses if they want to get the most productivity and value from their limited resources.

Jack Be Nimble

Just enabling employees to login from home or the road and respond to e-mails or return calls can be critical to making small firms as nimble and responsive as they need to be to stay competitive. “Companies have lost business as a result of not having that capability,” Ghanbarzadeh said.

While productivity increases and the benefits of being more adaptive may be difficult to measure, savings in real estate-related costs are quantifiable. Some of it, said Angl, is cost avoidance – not having to lease more space as you add employees because some are now working at least part of the time at home.

“Having that [telework] capability, affords you the flexibility to make those kinds of decisions,” he said. “Without it, you may be forced to take on another lease when you add more people.”

Big firms, including Nortel and some top-five consulting organizations, have implemented aggressive telework programs in which employees are no longer assigned dedicated workstations at the office. They share – a practice often referred to as hoteling.

Nortel claims its telework program has saved the company $22 million in real estate costs since 2003, in part by allowing it to sell property and reduce space under lease. There are also incidental costs associated with office-bound employees – services and support such as moves, adds and changes to technology – which can also be reduced, Angl said. “And they can really add up.”

Raj Sonty, vice president of solutions in the small-and-medium-business division at Avaya Inc., a network equipment vendor, said Avaya research shows real estate-related costs for each employee with a dedicated workstation add up to $5,000 a year.

Employees Love It

Telework is also hugely attractive to employees, of course. They save commuting time, cost and aggravation. Many see it as a way to better balance home and work life, reducing stress and making it easier to fulfill family and household obligations – picking up the kids from school at 3:30 in the afternoon, for example, or being home for the cable guy.

They may as a result be more productive, some analysts said. And having a formal telework program may make it easier to recruit top talent who want those benefits.

Finally, implementing a comprehensive and carefully thought out telework program also means that when faced with a major weather event you and you’re your employees can keep the company up and running from home or even from an evacuation site if necessary.

So what do you need to make it happen? And how much will it cost?

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