Survey: Done Right, Telework Ups Productivity, Job Satisfaction

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A sound telecommuting strategy increases productivity, job satisfaction and work/life flexibility significantly, according to a recent survey conducted by a global Internet solutions company among its workforce.

Conducted in late 2008 with 1,992 employees, Cisco Systems Inc. looked at commuting patterns, technology barriers, environmental impacts, work quality, productivity, employee satisfaction and the advantages of flexible lifestyles.

Respondents were from the Asia-Pacific region, the United States, Canada, Europe and emerging markets. About 40 percent of the Cisco employees surveyed were not in the same city as their manager.

Cisco employees spend about 63 percent of their time communicating and collaborating. The company realizes an estimated $277 million annually in productivity by allowing employees to work remotely, according to the company’s Internet Business Services Group. The company has adopted resources such as a virtual office and virtual collaboration tools for teleworkers.

When employees were asked about their time working remotely:

  • 83 percent said their ability to communicate and collaborate with workers was the same, if not better, as when they worked on-site.
  • 75 percent said the timeliness of their work improved.
  • 69 percent reported higher productivity. Sixty percent of the time they saved via telecommuting they applied to work; the other 40 percent they applied to personal use.
  • 67 percent of workers said the overall quality of their work improved.

Sixty-three percent of Cisco’s managers supervise more than one teleworking employee. The typical Cisco employee telecommutes two days per week, the survey found. When they are not telecommuting, the average round-trip commute varied according to the region where they live:

  • United States and Canada, 30 miles.
  • Asia-Pacific, 14 miles.
  • Europe, 46 miles.
  • Japan, 26 miles.
  • Emerging markets, 16 miles.

In addition to cutting down on travel time, Cisco employees who teleworked saved a total of $10.3 million annually in gasoline and prevented the release of about 47,320 metric tons of greenhouse gas, according to the findings.

Telework has had a big impact on employee job satisfaction, Cisco found. Ninety-one percent of employees surveyed considered it somewhat important or very important, and 80 percent credited it with improving their quality of life.

Not everyone’s in love with the idea, though.

There Is a Downside

It’s a concept that raises issues such as safety and workers’ compensation, and is in need of greater reflection before employers extend its use to nonexempt employees, says Roger Bong, an HR professional at a nonprofit organization.

“Most telecommuting occurs at the employee’s home, and the employer has an obligation to provide a safe work area,” Bong told SHRM Online in an e-mail. “Unless you perform periodic safety inspections like you do at work, you run the risk of not being able to defend a questionable claim.”

Lack of control over hours worked also worries him.

“The real scare comes from wage and hour [law] and its increasing prominence with the [U.S. Department of Labor]. You cannot regulate the hours or the working conditions when you’re not there.

“It only takes one disgruntled employee to make it possible for some attorney to file a class-action suit to recoup payment of hours worked and not reported, or even to assert that the employees were told not to report all working hours,” he wrote.

“You have no control over what they report, so you have no recourse to challenge them without coming face-to-face with the [Department of Labor].”

However, telecommuting is being embraced by various federal agencies.

“Teleworking is working,” said Aaron Glover, Special Assistant to the Director of Manpower, Personnel, and Security for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

And it’s invisible when done right.

“There should be seamless support to your customer and your organizations,” Glover said. Customers should have no idea where an employee is located when that employee takes a call.

Glover was among panelists speaking at an Oct. 14, 2009, Telework Exchange town hall meeting that Cisco sponsored.

DISA implemented telework in 2006. Among its reasons: reducing employees’ carbon footprint; recruitment, especially among Generation Y candidates and employees; as a pandemic response; and as a retention tool when military bases are realigned and closed.

Initially, 500 employees opted to telework; in 2009 there were more than 2,500, according to Glover. Employees may telework for up to three days per week with a supervisor’s approval.

Fewer Interruptions

“If done correctly, [a] teleworker can be more productive,” he said, because working remotely reduces workplace interruptions and employees “are absolutely focused to get the work done.”

One fear employers have is that allowing some employees to telework means that all employees should have that option, he noted. However, supervisors should not approve any telework agreement about which he or she has legitimate concerns, he said.

Training, support from the top and financial commitment are the keys to a successful telework program, he emphasized. The success or failure of telework can be measured by productivity, participation and return on investment.

DISA has an employee performance plan to measure telework productivity, along with customer and manager feedback.

An automated system includes a complete safety checklist, helps identify the days an employee wants to telework, tracks attendance and measures the number of employee requests to telework that are approved and denied.

This helps identify “pockets of resistance” among supervisors so they can be addressed, Glover added. When measuring return on investment, employee satisfaction level is one of the key areas DISA looks at, he said.

“It all boils down to trust. … Employees need to be empowered, and there’s no better way to empower them, in my opinion, than allowing them to telework,” Glover said.

At the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), about 5,000 employees—61 percent of its workforce—are eligible to telework, said Danette Campbell, senior telework advisor at PTO and a panelist.

PTO has a telework web site that contains such resources as a telework agreement, a safety checklist and frequently asked questions.

She advised employers considering telework to determine telework drivers for individual business units; present it as a business strategy; develop guidelines that address the needs of business units; and educate agency executives, managers and employees.

Also, conduct periodic meetings with the heads of business units, design an enterprise-wide telework policy, and work with the heads of business units and business unit telework coordinators to plan yearly deployments and training.

Among PTO’s lessons learned, she said:

  • Conduct telework pilots, surveys and focus sessions.
  • Duplicate the electronic office environment at home.
  • Provide collaboration tools and webcasts for meetings and presentations.
  • Have measurable performance standards.
  • Set clear expectations for customer service.
  • Provide information technology and non-IT training for teleworkers and managers.
  • Provide technical support and ensure that help desk staff is trained properly on remote equipment.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.