Remote Possibilities

Companies are more interested than ever in the concept of a far-flung workforce.

When the bombing of the Twin Towers displaced 16,000 of its employees, New York City­-based Citigroup Inc. got a useful if unfortunate lesson in the value of mobile technology. “If it were not for our mobile phones, we would have been in much deeper trouble,” says Mel Taub, Citigroup’s corporate technology officer. Even though most of its employees were able to return within a week to the office buildings and branch locations they had been forced to vacate, he says, “what we learned from this disaster is that we will come to rely on this technology even more.”

Cell phones weren’t the only technology that helped Citigroup weather the crisis. The number of E-mail messages employees sent via the BlackBerry portable device made by Research in Motion increased 10-fold, to one million per day. Laptop use doubled, as measured by the number of sessions connecting those machines to corporate servers. While usage has now leveled off, the bank continues to invest in those technologies, both as part of its contingency planning and to facilitate what had already been a growing trend toward telecommuting.

In fact, that trend has been going strong for years. In July, a report from the General Accounting Office noted that the number of workers telecommuting has increased 20 percent per year during the past decade. Today some 16.5 million people work from home at least once a month, and 9.3 million do so at least once a week. Larry Buchsbaum, director of E-sourcing Strategies for Boston-based market researcher Yankee Group, says, “The reality is that we’re living in a distributed computing world, and that’s only increasing. Telecommuting will be more in demand.” Twenty-five percent of the companies responding to a recent survey from Gartner Inc.’s Dataquest unit said they plan to increase their reliance on telecommuting.

Telecommuting often calls to mind a bathrobe-clad “knowledge worker” lobbing in his or her contribution from the comfort of a home office. But the arsenal of mobile technologies available to companies today allows the concept of a remote workforce to take many forms, creating efficiencies that boost the bottom line. Keith Bolt, vice president and CFO of Atlantic Envelope Co., in Atlanta, says that because his company’s 70-person sales force can easily access the company’s intranet from the road, they spend more time making sales calls and less time filling out paperwork at the office. Using a BlackBerry, they can check customer files, inventory levels, purchase orders, and more. In fact, Bolt says that without the ability for reps to access the company intranet remotely, Atlantic Envelope would have to hire more customer service reps and open more offices. “We have sales reps who live and work in Florida,” he says, “and we can support them with mobile technology without having to open an office there.”

CFOs and other senior executives are increasingly drawn to the idea of employees who don’t need office space. Russ Gilbertson, CTO of NetCom Solutions International Inc., in Chantilly, Virginia, says that earlier this year his company was able to close a six-person office in Atlanta, chopping a few thousand dollars per month in rental costs from the company’s P&L. The employees remained; they just began working from home.

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