The number of teleworkers in the U.S. has never been higher - 28.8 million according to recent research by the International Telework Association and Council. Even so, for advocates who routinely rattle off a dozen benefits of telework, widespread telework adoption has been frustratingly slow, marked most by resistance from middle management.
As a result, many companies dabble in telework in one way or another as part of employee-friendly philosophies or cost-cutting measures - launching pilot programs, letting far-flung new hires work from home or simply equipping workers with the tools to work from anywhere. Grander plans to distribute the workforce haven't topped many lists. But now that's changing.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the list of telework benefits has grown longer, and the new items seem much more important. The old way and the old resistance suddenly seemed irrelevant as telework was immediately recognized as the single best way for companies formerly housed in the World Trade Center complex and nearby buildings to resume some semblance of normal operations.
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As important, telework became the compassionate response to the thousands of employees who were injured and/or emotionally traumatized - a way to help them ease back into work on their own terms, in secure surroundings. Moreover, telework became a way to spare long commutes to temporary offices in the suburbs for those in better shape.
For the short term, telework has been the best answer to the question, "Where do we work?" Long term, it becomes a vital part of a larger contingency plan should the worst happen again.
On the front lines of this changing attitude are telework consultants and technology providers. Here's what people are reporting:
"Companies aren't concerned about training or what the optimal program should be. They're just trying to get to stabilization so workers can access files from home and be productive," says Tim Kane, president of ITAC, and CEO and president of telework consultancy Kinetic Workplace. "Everybody looking at this realizes telework is a big project. They're launching short-term solutions today, then in a quarter or two they may say, 'Hey, this is really working for us,' and roll out something more permanent."
Karen Dmytriw, director of converged applications at Verizon Enterprise Solutions Group, says her customers are now putting formal telework programs in place as a contingency plan. "They're looking to answer two questions: 'How do I make my employees happy, comfortable, and feel secure,' and, 'If something happens, do we have a good backup?' "
Consultant Gil Gordon says one financial services client illustrated the new attitude best: "We used to have a hard time getting the attention of senior management on telework and other forms of office decentralization. Now they're coming to us and asking, 'Hey, what's this stuff all about?' "
Gordon adds that for many tech-savvy companies that are already equipped with remote access and mobile technology, the attitude is to just do it. "There's less need for wholesale orientation and education. Even so, the staunch resistance to telework hasn't been washed away overnight," he says.
Mark Googins, vice president of consulting services for network integrator Calence, says, "Our clients now recognize they have to be prepared for any event. What is their work-at-home policy, disaster-recovery plan? The bigger companies still see telework more as an opportunity to cut costs."
He adds, "While many of our clients have had telework programs in place, they may not have been well defined in terms of who's eligible. Companies are now focusing on these programs, defining and communicating them better, and getting more people involved."
"One company I met with in New York that lost their space was the anomaly," Kane of ITAC says. "They have a younger population who generally live on their own. Senior management views telework as the worst possible thing they could do right now for the employees. They get their emotional support from the office. Prior to 9/11 these folks would have loved the flexibility to work at home a couple days per week. But now they need to be together."
Joseph Villarosa, a small-business strategic analyst and former epidemiologist, says, "Things were quiet at first, but now the phone is ringing off the hook. Companies have realized that they still need to do business, sell product, regroup, find new ways of selling stuff, restrategize - but all under a new set of conditions."
"We've finally broken through to say that telework is work from anywhere," says John Vivadelli, president of enterprise software company AgilQuest. "But anywhere has to be a real place. Offices aren't going anywhere. They're going to be used differently, and the networker needs to be mobile - in hotels, taxis and rental cars. People can't get all their work done from one place, I don't care where it is - home, downtown, wherever. That's why there are networks."
Toni Kistner is managing editor of Net.Worker. Contact her at email@example.com.
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