• Strategy
  • CFO Magazine

Workers of the World, Disperse!

Telecommuting can help boost productivity and morale -- if you work out the management challenges first.

It takes Sue Sachdeva, CFO of Koss Corp., a Milwaukee-based manufacturer of stereo headphones, less than a minute to commute to work most days. That’s because she telecommutes from her home in Houston, 1,200 miles away from corporate headquarters in Milwaukee — an arrangement that’s been in effect since the finance executive relocated to Texas in 1994.

“I’m still in my ‘office,’ and as available as I ever was,” insists Sachdeva, who manages her nine-person finance department using a fax machine, a phone, and a desktop computer with a modem that connects to the server at headquarters. “But now if someone has a question, instead of walking over to my office, they E-mail me or pick up the phone.” The availability of such technology, adds Sachdeva, has also reduced her stress load, since she can now manage home and work issues as they arise. “Before telecommuting,” she says, “I didn’t feel I was doing justice to either front.”

Sachdeva is one of 11 million Americans — up from 8 million in 1995 — who work for their employers outside the corporate office at least once a month, according to Telecommute America, a public/private association in Washington, D.C., that promotes this alternative work style. A few, like Sachdeva, are full-time telecommuters, but most are full-time employees who telecommute one to three days a week. In addition to working from home offices, a substantial number of remote workers operate out of “virtual offices,” meaning they can work anywhere because their offices exist totally electronically. Still others practice hoteling, whereby they share a dedicated office location with other employees.

The growth of these different concepts of remote work has been facilitated in recent years by the advent of powerful laptops and high-speed communications technologies. In addition, today’s tight job market, coupled with onerous commuting conditions in some of the hottest markets (for example, Silicon Valley), has made employers more willing to accept alternative working arrangements. In fact, one in four Fortune 1,000 companies now has a formal program in place for employees who regularly telecommute either part time or full time, according to a July KPMG Peat Marwick LLP study. And that number is expected to double within the next three years.

Still, what makes telecommuting work is a source of great debate. Champions of the concept laud the flexibility it affords employees and point to numerous examples of increased productivity for companies. Yet making the decision to launch a telecommuting program should not be taken lightly. Says Joseph Parente, manager of KPMG’s telecommuting practice, “The hype days of telecommuting are over. Companies need to realize that without some forethought and careful management, telecommuting has the potential not necessarily to fail, but to not live up to the successes promised.” For telecommuting to work, adds Gil Gordon of Gil Gordon Associates, a telecommuting and virtual office consulting firm based in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, “it has to be institutionalized, with ongoing training, monitoring, and measurement. It can’t just be the program du jour.”

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