Today those concerns have largely disappeared. Technology barriers have also come down, and urgent new incentives from higher real estate costs, to increased commute times, to heightened business continuity concerns and environmental issues, have made telework not just more attractive but, in many firms, a key strategy.

Computer and telecom companies such as IBM and Sun Microsystems have led the way, perhaps not surprisingly. In this country, Bell Canada currently has 1,800 full-time teleworkers and 14,000 employees who have remote access to the company’s network, out of a total population of 42,000. And Bell hopes eventually to have 10,000 employees participating in its two-year-old FlexSpace program.

Nortel, which launched its first initiative in 1995, now has 2,500 full-time teleworkers and 12,000 registered part-timers. Mary McClintock, Nortel’s Raleigh, N.C.-based manager of remote access solutions, says there is probably double that number teleworking occasionally or after hours.

True, both companies have access to resources that mainstream businesses do not, but their experiences suggest that any business can benefit from teleworking. Much of the recent push at Bell, for example, came out of a need to “optimize our real estate portfolio,” as Denis Huard, general manager of logistics account management, puts it. “That was the initial trigger.”

With its already large population of full- and part-time teleworkers, Bell realized it was missing an opportunity. Many cubicles in its offices were empty every day. As part of the FlexSpace program, Huard’s group is now systematically analyzing the work behaviour of Bell teams to see how it can exploit this. In a hypothetical team of 100, as many as 40 workstations are empty daily, though not the same cubicles every day.

Analysis showed that while it was not practical to reduce the team’s space by the full 40 percent, it could be reduced by 20 percent. Now 50 seats may be permanently assigned workstations, while the other 30 are made available for teleworkers when they come in to the office. The company is moving work groups around to rationalize space.

“At the end of the day,” Huard explains, “after a long chain of moves, we free up one full floor. Then the lease is either terminated or we sublet.”

This is not pure savings. To accommodate situations where there aren’t enough flex seats available in a team’s space on a given day, Bell is equipping areas in its facilities where any employee can find desk space, get access to the network, print a presentation and make phone calls. And as part of its larger FlexSpace strategy, it is establishing small satellite offices nearer where people live. Some Bell employees now have three options: work at home, work at a suburban satellite office or go downtown to the team’s “anchor point.”

Huard won’t say how much Bell is saving but Nortel, which has undertaken a similar program, will. “We’ve reduced real estate costs by $22 million annually since 2003,” McClintock says.

Toronto consultant Roberta Fox, founder and senior partner at Fox Group, a firm that helps companies set up and work the bugs out of telework programs, says the fully loaded cost per person per month to have an employee working in an office in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is now about $1,000. This in-cludes real estate, facility maintenance and office-related infrastructure costs. Her firm, where all consultants work from home or a client’s facility, spends “maybe $200 per person,” Fox says. “That’s a 400 per cent savings.”

Real estate savings is just one benefit driving recent increases in telework, Fox says. Worsening traffic in big cities, especially the GTA, and resulting longer commute times have pushed more companies to launch or augment programs, she says. Huard cites research showing that teleworkers give back 60 to 70 percent of the time they save by not commuting, using the time to work at home.

This is just one way teleworkers become more productive. McClintock says it’s sometimes difficult to quantify teleworker productivity, but Nortel did collect positive anecdotal evidence from managers in a survey a few years ago. Most, like the U.S.-based manager who sent an Ottawa employee home to work, believe their teleworkers are more productive.

“He told us she was calling him more often to say she’d finished a project and did he have anything else for her to do,” McClintock says with a chuckle. “In other words, the work was being completed at an accelerated rate because the employee didn’t have the usual interruptions and distractions of an office.”

Fox Group did time and motion studies showing that teleworkers in internally-focused jobs – HR, admin, IT, accounting – are 18 per cent more productive when working one day a week at home, 25 per cent more productive when teleworking two days but, interestingly, four per cent less productive when working three or more days at home. For outwardly-focused employees such as sales and service people and consultants productivity increases are 25 per cent when teleworking one day, 40 per cent when doing it two days and 18 per cent when working from home three or more days.

Telework advocates always claimed, but often had difficulty proving, the productivity gain. Some newly recognized benefits don’t really need quantifying. Nortel, for example, recently won an award sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for reducing the number of commuting vehicles at its offices in Raleigh and Boston. This was mainly because of its telework program, McClintock says. The public and government relations benefit may not add directly to Nortel’s bottom line, but clearly it doesn’t hurt.

Much more important is the growing realization in many organizations that telework – and the broader notion of employee mobility now driving strategies at Bell and Nortel – has enormous implications for business continuity planning. If a major office loses power or if an epidemic makes it hazardous for employees to congregate at offices, those equipped to work at home, can keep the company going, Huard says.

This is not just a nice side benefit: there are bottom-line implications. It can reduce the requirement for disaster recovery sites and services, and it means a company can get back up and running much more quickly after a disaster, Huard says.

New, improved and lower-cost technology has been a key enabler in recent years, and it’s crucial for enabling the business continuity benefits. Laptops are cheap enough now that companies can afford to adopt them as everyday computers for non-executive personnel, Fox points out. Cable and DSL broadband have reduced teleworker connectivity costs by 400 per cent or more compared to ISDN services used in the early days at Nortel, McClintock says.

More recently, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and related technologies have added new dimensions. At Nortel, the company’s Multimedia Communications Server (MCS) lets teleworkers make VoIP calls from anywhere as if they were in the office. They can set up IP teleconferences with colleagues anywhere and use video, white boarding or application sharing features.

Find-me-follow-me features let them tell the system how and where to reach them. And instant messaging (IM) and presence features let others know exactly where they are and what they’re doing. “Somebody just instant messaged me a moment ago,” McClintock says. “She could see [from MCS] that I was on the phone, so rather than call, she sent me an instant message, saying, ‘Can you answer a question real quick, because I know you’re on the phone?” Bell uses similar tools.

But VoIP and other new technologies, though clearly powerful, have yet to be widely adopted by mainstream teleworking companies, Fox says. Furthermore, while the Nortels and Bells may have met many or most telework challenges, implementing a successful telework program is no slam dunk. Technology is only part of the picture.

“A long time ago, I realized that the technology is the easy part,” Fox says. “The people side, that’s not so easy.”

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