Preparing Employees to Telecommute

In 2008, executives at Automatic Data Processing Inc., or ADP, made a startling discovery: In the United States alone, 1,500 of its 61,000 global employees were working from home.

Employees at the provider of business services had been allowed to work remotely ever since the concept of telecommuting first began to gain traction in the 1970s and 1980s. But it wasn’t until 2008 that it became apparent just how much employees had taken advantage of the option.

To this end, company leadership realized the need to develop a formal telecommuting policy, said Amy Freshman, ADP’s senior director of global workforce enablement and human resources. “That was really the beginning of our progression as an organization to really formalizing and creating an official policy program.”

The need for a formal telecommuting framework has become prevalent across many companies and industries as workers increasingly report their desire to work from home. In a survey by office supply chain Staples Inc. in 2014, 71 percent of respondents said the option to telecommute was an important factor in their decision to accept a job, and 67 percent said they’d willingly give up other perks to work remotely.

The allure of remote working isn’t just attractive to employees. Companies are also beginning to find telecommuting more attractive, as studies continue to point to the practice’s benefits, including increased employee productivity and retention.

Kate Lister, president of workplace strategy firm Global Workplace Analytics, said telework is the “solution to the problem du jour.” “People talk about increasing performance and productivity, about saving money on real estate, increasing wellness and wellbeing,” Lister said. “It kind of just depends on what the news item is.”

Still, simply allowing employees to stop showing up at the office is not sufficient on its own to translate into the benefits heralded by telecommuting converts. For telecommuting to really work, experts say organizations need to implement the right tools and strategies.

“We’re in a situation where across the globe, companies measure what their utilization is within the building, and they find that people are not at their desks 50-60 percent of the time, that they’re already mobile,” Lister said. “But we haven’t put the practices and procedures into place for the most part that can create the kind of efficiency that can accompany those strategies.”

So how do organizations go about developing a functioning telework program?

The ability of managers to work effectively with virtual teams is one of the biggest challenges facing telecommuting. 

There are a couple of key steps, according to Jack Nilles, co-founder and president of Jala International, a telecommuting consultancy in Los Angeles, California.

Nilles, who has authored several books on remote work strategies, is credited with coining the terms “telework” and “telecommuting” back in 1973. The rocket scientist-turned-telecommuting consultant initially began researching the possibility of employees working remotely as a potential solution to roadway congestion in Los Angeles.

Working with a team at the University of Southern California, he piloted the first documented telecommuting project in 1973 with a major national insurance company. Since, Nilles has made the implementation of successful telework strategies his livelihood. He has developed telecommuting programs at a number of organizations, including several Fortune 100 companies.

“Most people are not inbred distance workers,” Nilles said. “There is a difference between working by yourself at home and working in the traditional office. You’ve got to teach people how to cope with that — and not just telecommuters but their supervisors as well.”

Nilles said the first thing any company should do when launching a telework program is to establish goals. After that, it is important to determine whether the job in question is actually compatible with remote work, and if it is, what sorts of tools and technology are necessary to facilitate that job.

Finally, firms need to establish specific rules and policies that remote workers must adhere to and implement a training program to ensure telecommuting employees are fully aware of what is expected of them.

“Training need not be a particularly big deal, but essentially you’ve got to say, ‘How are you going to work differently when you’re at home than you would ordinarily?’ and ‘How are you going to make up for that?’” Nilles said.

Putting Into Practice

At ADP, where 22 percent of U.S. employees telecommute, Freshman said it has developed a formal approval process and transition program for employees who are making the change to working from home. Additionally, ADP holds information sessions that help prepare employees to make that leap.

“The clear purpose of the information sessions is to give them a clear picture of what working from home looks like, what they can expect,” Freshman said. “We give recommendations and suggestions.”

Freshman, who in her 20 years at ADP has spent the last seven working at home, said maintaining an open dialogue is key to making telecommuting work. To that end, ADP offers an employee resource group centered on supporting a virtual workforce.

Clinical research firm Parexel International Corp. offers this type of support through the company’s intranet. A support page dedicated to decentralized employees serves as a community where remote workers can connect with other employees and share tips for working outside of the main office.

Parexel also implements programs that enable remote workers to participate in on-site trainings with their peers to “ensure they feel connected to their colleagues and the company,” said Tom McGoldrick, the firm’s vice president of talent acquisition.

Additionally, managerial effectiveness training programs stress regular one-on-one meetings with virtual employees and “equip managers with the skills to ensure they are connecting with their employees as successfully as possible,” said Jeanne Raney, Parexel’s human resources director.

This ability of managers to work effectively with virtual teams is one of the biggest challenges facing telecommuting, Lister said.

“Managers are still reluctant to allow their people to work remotely because they don’t know how to manage them remotely,” Lister said. “They’re stuck in the ages of sweatshops and typing schools, thinking that looking at the back of their heads is some measure of what they’re doing, when it obviously isn’t. Most of Internet shopping takes place during the hours of 9 to 5, as does watching cat videos and watching porn. So it’s an issue of needing to evolve to managing by results, managing by performance.”

At virtual contact center provider Working Solutions, where its network of employees and contractors is made up almost entirely of remote workers, company leadership has implemented a tracking system that records the amount of time contractors spend interacting with customers.

“It’s generally not hourly,” Kim Houlne, the company’s president, said of how contractor productivity is calculated. “It’s by the minute or by the product or by the chat or by the text. We break it down into very small increments so they’re able to manage very closely their work productivity.”

For remote employees, a similar accountability system is in place to ensure that everyone is doing what is expected of them.

“You are hired into a position at Working Solutions with a specific goal in mind,” Houlne said. “You know what those objectives are, what those tasks are and you accomplish them. Whether you are working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to get that done or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or whatever the timeframe is, we don’t really care — we just want to make sure that you’re doing the best you can possibly do for the company and that you are accomplishing those directives.”

These types of clearly communicated expectations are essential to the successful operation of a telecommuting system, Nilles said.

“You have to make an agreement before telecommuting starts to what the telecommuter’s going to be responsible for, what the schedule is, when the work products are due, the level of quality expected, this kind of thing,” he said. “And you need to do it in a relatively formal way so this way nobody’s surprised. If the work isn’t being done, you can recognize it soon before it gets out of hand, and if it’s something that needs fixing, it can be fixed properly.”

In addition, employers need to implement policies and training to ensure that employees who are working from home are truly dedicating that time to working and not using telework as a way to multitask household chores or child care responsibilities.

“We need to ensure that the person has access to a home office environment, an area that can be dedicated to work purposes,” Freshman said. “We also do require that child care and elder care be taken care of to be sure that the associate really is giving themselves an opportunity to have a workplace that lends itself to the most amount of success.”

To minimize any possible distractions at Working Solutions, there is a zero tolerance policy for any noise outside of what would occur in the typical office environment.

“If your dog barks or your doorbell rings, we absolutely consider that part of our zero tolerance policy,” Houlne said. “You have to have an extremely quiet working environment in order to be able to continueworking remotely.”