Gas price increases spur interest in telecommuting

Companies say they are ready for more teleworkers

As gasoline prices spiked early this week by 10 cents to 20 cents a gallon around the country, telework managers said employees are requesting more hours to work at home via computer and broadband to avoid lengthy and expensive drives to the office.

IT executives said they can accommodate more teleworkers, with many companies having set up guidelines and the proper security such as virtual private networks. Innovations over recent years, such as Web collaboration tools, are already widely in use. Broadband connections are becoming commonplace, so gaining a big pipe to run a VPN and access big files from home isn't as hard as it used to be.

In recent weeks, Saint Luke's Health System in Kansas City, Mo., has seen more hours of teleworking among workers already approved for it, said CIO John Wade. "We have an extensive capacity to support remote access, so we are prepared to allow more employees to use this approach," he said.

Wade said he expects an increase in requests to support full remote access, which is secure, as "cost pressures on the employees escalate."

Another IT executive said adding teleworkers is no longer a technology concern.

"Telecommuting isn't a technology challenge as much as a cultural challenge," said Skip Snow, an IT executive at a major financial institution who also telecommutes long distance. "The problems with telecommuting don't have as much to do with technology and tools as with whether a worker or manager will work as well with a guy on the phone as compared with the guy in the next office. But with globalization, remote workers are going to be the norm."

As with many other companies, broadband connections are required for teleworkers at General Electric Co.'s GE Energy division in Atlanta to run a VPN. But at GE, a third-party hosting service also means employees can connect to internal systems via a Web browser, which is useful in airports and as a backup if a home computer isn't working, said Larry Tardell, Southeast infrastructure operations leader at GE.

Snow said he can work on any computer virtually anywhere using a smart card equivalent for a password and reaching his company through a company portal.

Several companies in Atlanta, where urban air pollution has for years forced companies to encourage car pools and telework, said they are already prepared for renewed interest in telework should gas prices continue to climb, having put in place policies for network and computer security and proper supervision of home workers in recent years. The nonprofit Clean Air Campaign in the Atlanta region this week said 13 companies have added 1,800 new teleworkers in the past 18 months. Some are even welcoming more telecommuters because of savings on office space, according to interviews.

The average price per gallon of regular gasoline nationally hit $2.55 on Monday, up 18.2 cents from a week earlier, marking the largest one-week increase on record, the U.S. Department of Energy reported. That was 68 cents higher than a year ago, with increases ranging from 10 cents to 20 cents, depending on the region.

"In Atlanta, commuting is challenging, and our workers have the opportunity to telework and be productive, so they see it as a way to save themselves some funds. When they pay more at the pump, it makes them think of ways to stop paying more," said Alissa Grzybowski, manager of work-life balance at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

About 10 workers at Children's in the past two weeks have made inquiries to start or increase their telework, citing the rising gas prices. That compares with none in the previous six months, she said. Of the company's 5,800 workers, 2,000 have access to telework, but not everybody takes advantage of it every week.

"Definitely there's an increased interest in teleworking due to increased gas prices," she said, noting that some doctors and nurses will never be able to telework because of the need for bedside care.

At Children's and several other Atlanta-area businesses, even though workers must pay nearly all their costs to telework, they are still interested in doing so. Often their costs include a home computer, desk, chair and a broadband connection, several telework managers said.

However, at GE Energy's division in Atlanta, home computers and a broadband connection are paid for by GE. That policy has allowed GE to cut the number of office-based workstations it needs by 50. Each workstation costs about $15,000 a year in real estate and related costs, said Kate Lee, manager of community affairs at GE. GE has about 2,200 workers and some telework one or two days a week, while others telework for the entire week.

Snow said with rising real estate costs, the costs any companies might bear to support teleworkers might be insignificant. "It's not expensive to telecommute," he said. Large companies might find it advantageous to have more workers telecommute just to distribute the workforce and lessen the impact of a catastrophe or attack on a central facility.

The Pitfalls

The biggest concerns in setting up effective telework programs have been over proper supervision of workers and security of systems, managers said.

Jane Franklin, a special projects coordinator overseeing telework and van pooling at Georgia Power in Atlanta, said the utility's 475 teleworkers, out of a workforce of 8,800, must adhere to a set of guidelines for telework that is signed by the worker and his manager.

The guidelines state that workers who introduce a virus into the company network while working at home will be subject to having remote access disabled for two days. For the third infringement, a worker's remote access will be permanently disabled. A "handful" of workers have been permanently disabled because of the policy, Franklin said.

While Georgia Power operates a companywide VPN, home users must provide their own home firewalls and other security (as well as their own computer and network connection), although the IT help desk will offer advice, she said.

Telework increases productivity and employee job satisfaction, Georgia Power surveys show, but a worker's manager needs to agree to the arrangement first, she said. "There's always been a little hesitation on the part of managers and that's one reason to formalize guidelines," she said.

At GE, managers are encouraged to hold frequent "true verbal conversations" with employees to make sure they are on top of what they're employees are doing, Lee said.

An initiative at the Atlanta law firm Drew Eckl & Farnham LLP has attracted more than 11% of its 225 workers to telework, said Reinhard Breckner, executive director. This week, several workers said they want to join the program or expand their telework hours because of higher gas prices, he said.

The law firm has embraced telework and has invested in digital transcription software, as well as software to provide searchable PDF files to make it easier for lawyers to work at home more often, Breckner said. "We're promoting telework, partly to show our clients we're progressive, but we really pride ourselves on it," he said.

This week's spike in gas prices provoked more chatter around the firm's water cooler about working at home, at least to avoid rush hours when commutes can be "atrocious," he said. "We're ready for more telework" if gas prices soar higher.

Telework has expanded beyond operations within a company to include telework centers for government and private-sector workers in the Washington area that are funded by the federal government. One is in Winchester, Va., with room for 32 workers. It is about 75% occupied at any given time, said Linda Whitmer, facility manager.

Whitmer said increasing gas prices should increase teleworker demand of their employers. "I hope more people will get braver to ask," she said.

Even though demand might suddenly be up, telework is nothing new for most companies, and the line between the increasing numbers of mobile workers and teleworkers has blurred, said Gil Gordon, an independent consultant based in Monmouth Junction, N.J.

In a survey earlier this year of 95 IT professionals, Sage Research in Natick, Mass., found that 70% had teleworking programs, with the majority spending well below $5,000 annually to support those workers.

Chris Neal, director of research at Sage, said telecommuting support costs depend on how much companies want to spend on collaboration tools, security software and equipment.

In terms of concerns about teleworking, the survey found that security was the top issue -- cited by 50% of those surveyed. VPN reliability was a distant second at 12%.

The survey also found that the majority of businesses intend to increase telework use over the next year.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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