Secrets to Telework Success for Small Businesses

By Gerry Blackwell

June 19, 2009

Teleworking a.k.a. telecommuting a.k.a. Web commuting can reduce absenteeism and churn, increase morale and retention, and save thousands of dollars--but only if it's done right.

Something interesting is happening to telework. What was once a grassroots movement and a business strategy is turning into an industry – and much of the focus is on small businesses.

Purveyors of enabling technologies, such Avaya, which makes IP-based office phone systems that let employees communicate from anywhere as if they were in the office, and Citrix, which makes software tools for remote data access and collaboration, see that small businesses are increasingly interested in telework, so they’re selling it hard.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Telework – or Web commuting as Citrix has recently taken to calling it – has much to recommend it. But it’s not a slam-dunk kind of thing for everyone. Does it make sense for your business? Here’s what you need to know.

Beware the hype

You need to plan, you need to establish policies and parameters, you need to be aware of potential pitfalls. And as always, you need to beware of hype.

The vendors are eager to tell you how more and more small businesses are adopting telework, and why. Avaya recently published results of a survey which found that almost 70 percent of small business owners would let employees work from home sometimes – if they could test the arrangement first.

A recent Citrix Online report on “the World Wide Workplace” cited a forecast from Forrester Research that by 2016 a third of the U.S. workforce will work from alternate locations some of the time.

Nearly 75 percent of workers participating in the Citrix survey, and more than 50 percent of owners, said they wanted the ability to work remotely, though most added they didn’t have it. About 20 percent of employees would take a 5 percent pay cut for the right to telework sometimes.

The Avaya report perhaps shows its true colors when it claims that about 60 percent of small businesses and employees lack enabling technology to implement telework – meaning they don’t have one of the company’s IP office phone systems.

But before you rush out and buy a new IP PBX, ask yourself what telework can actually do for your business.

Isabelle Guis, senior director of marketing for small and medium enterprises at Avaya is the first to admit small businesses “aren’t interested in soft benefits.” They want to know about bottom-line impacts. The Avaya survey shows that 39 percent think telework will make employees more productive, 35 percent think it will help retain employees.

Bottom-line benefits

Avaya has also surveyed companies that telework. According to Guis, these companies say it mitigates employee absenteeism, reducing cost per lost day from $2,000 to $1,000 on average. This is because workers can stay home and get some work done – and don’t infect others.

Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition (TelCoa), is a fount of  additional ROI data. (TelCoa is non-profit that promotes the idea of telework, but its sponsors, including Avaya, are all providers of enabling technologies and services.)

Wilsker estimates, based on meta-research and surveying done by TelCoa, that telework can save companies $20,000 a year per employee on average. This was confirmed recently by one Alexandria, Virginia company, he says, that sent 20 of 40 employees home to work. The company president figures he’s saving about $400,000 a year as a result. How does he do it?

  • Savings on real estate and related costs. TelCoa estimates savings at $8,000 to $10,000 per employee per year. The Alexandria company reduced office space from 12,000 to 4,000 square feet.
  • Increased productivity. TelCoa estimates productivity increases of 20 to 22 percent, but one American Express study pegged it at 45 percent. Workers reinvest time saved on commuting. An AT&T study showed teleworkers work one hour longer a day on average. They’re also more amenable to working flexible hours which makes it easier to schedule and easier for companies to be responsive to customers.
  • Reduced employee churn. The theory, borne out by studies, according to Wilsker, is that teleworking employees are more satisfied so less likely to resign. TelCoa estimates costs to replace an employee at a minimum of 50 percent of annual salary. If telework saves having to rehire two $30,000 positions a year, that’s a saving of $30,000, he notes.

The intangibles

Then there are less-easily quantifiable benefits. Many businesses pursue telework because they want to be able to attract the best people at the best rate, regardless of location. You can do that if you’re able to accommodate remote teleworking employees. 

Another important reason to consider telework: business continuity. If you have a telework capability, you can send employees home to work in the event of disaster – however major or minor. Wilsker says the American Red Cross found that 40 percent of small businesses that shut down for two weeks or longer because of a disaster never reopened.

Okay, there are good reasons to consider implementing telework, but how to go about it? Most advocates say you need to establish policies and parameters to address key issues and stumbling blocks – although Guis argues it makes more sense to try it first, then decide what policies to put in place.

How to avoid pitfalls

Understand that telework isn’t for everyone, Wilsker says. Some employees don’t want to do it because they value the social aspects of the work place. Some aren’t cut out for it by temperament. Some don’t have a suitable place to work at home. You need a process and criteria for determining the suitable candidates, he says.

Skeptical managers say, “How do you know they’re working when they’re at home?” Wilsker’s answer: “How do you know they’re working when they’re at the office?” Many companies manage by time not performance, he points out. If Sally is sitting at her desk, she’s being productive. That’s not necessarily so.

“Managers need to develop metrics [for measuring employee performance],” said Wilsker. “They have to learn to manage by objectives and manage from afar.”

Trust is a key issue, Wilsker adds. “You have to trust that they will perform to objectives when given the freedom to telework. Giving them that freedom is pointless, though, if you keep them on a tight leash, insisting they be available at all times during regular business hours,” he said. “Establish core hours they will be available, and procedures for reporting. And trust them.”

Another issue: who pays? Will employees use their own PCs? It’s tempting since most already have them at home. But then how can you ask them to keep the kids off the computer and stop downloading potentially virus-ridden content from the Web?

And do you say that only employees with PCs will be considered for telework? This could lead to charges of discriminatory employment practices – and fuel resentment against teleworkers among non-teleworking colleagues, often enough a problem anyway.

Security: A no-brainer

There are issues around data and network security, of course. You can address most by following best practices – VPN (virtual private network) links to the office computer system, password security on mobile computing devices, thin client computing where all programs and data are stored on central servers.

Most horror stories about data being lost or compromised are easily avoidable, Wilsker said. “It’s really just stupidity that threatens a lot of this.”

How to get started? Create a brain trust from different areas of the company, including IT and HR, to figure out what’s needed. Establish objectives, draft guidelines, then try it out with a few people working away from the office a couple of days a week.

“You’ll find out what works and what doesn’t work,” Wilsker said. “Evaluate the whole program, then see what modifications you need to make. It’s an ongoing process.”

If you can believe the literature on telework ROI, and it’s compelling, the process is well worth pursuing.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.

Article courtesy of SmallBusinessComputing.com.


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