• United States
Executive Editor

Inside AT&T’s telework program

Nov 29, 20055 mins

* Research shows much lower turnover among AT&T's teleworkers than among salaried staff

Editor’s note: Beginning Dec. 6, you will start receiving a new newsletter, Branch Office Best Practices, in place of Telework Beat. The newsletter will focus on how to best manage branch and remote offices, whether they house 1 employee or 1,000. Experts from Nemertes Research will help you assess the best technology and tactics for keeping your branch offices running as smoothly as if they were under your roof.

There’s no shortage of reasons for AT&T to continue its celebrated telework program, which has helped the company slash its annual real estate costs by $30 million and rake in $150 million in extra hours of productive work from teleworkers. But just in case executives need one more reason, consider retention rates. Research completed a few weeks ago shows AT&T teleworkers are much less likely to jump ship than in-office staff, according to Joseph Roitz, AT&T’s telework director.

“Turnover in our virtual office population is half that of the turnover in our general salaried employee population,” Roitz says.

AT&T already had a well-established telework program when Roitz took over in 2000. Since his arrival, the number of virtual office workers at AT&T has tripled, and the annual business benefit has grown to more than $180 million.

Most recently, weather-related disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have reminded Roitz and others at AT&T of the importance of teleworking. Having a distributed workforce lowers AT&T’s exposure to events such as Katrina, Roitz says. In addition, telework-enabled staffers were able to quickly collaborate to come to the aid of employees affected by the disaster.

As an incident management director at AT&T, Roitz was responsible for helping to coordinate post-hurricane activities, such as locating AT&T employees and getting them assistance. AT&T’s virtual office workers helped expedite the process. “We were able to rapidly assemble a cross-functional team of people all over the country, whatever skills and talents we needed, and bring that virtual team to bear on that situation,” says Roitz, who works out of his home in Little Rock, Ariz.

AT&T has supported teleworkers for more than a decade, and the idea of telework as a business continuity strategy has always been a consideration. It’s a notion that’s catching on in the corporate world and influencing companies to grow and formalize their telework programs, Roitz says. “It used to be that productivity, job satisfaction and real estate savings were the primary drivers of this, but now I’d say that business continuity has leapt to forefront of why companies are looking at this.”

Industry-wide, culture remains the biggest barrier to telework adoption, according to Roitz. “For 200 years, we’ve operated an industrial economy with — almost unconsciously — these assembly-line patterns where we have to watch our workers and we all commute like lemmings into the office at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m.” But work today is much different. It’s more global, more around the clock and more conducive to teleworking, he says: “Realizing those things takes time. As much as anything, it’s fear of the unknown that holds us back.”

Within AT&T, new technology offerings are making waves with the telework population. The company is switching its employee teleworkers to AT&T’s VoIP-enabled CallVantage service pretty aggressively, Roitz says. A study of employee teleworkers found that the most important feature of the CallVantage service is the ability to access voice mails from a Web page. About 80% say that’s a top time-saving feature, Roitz says.

Another favorite is the “locate me” feature, which rings multiple phone numbers at the same time or in any sequential order. “Your phone will run you down wherever you happen to be,” Roitz says. Combined, such time-saving features save each employee about one hour per week – which is a 2.5% increase in productivity – according to AT&T’s latest research.

While AT&T continues to evolve its telework program, it doesn’t look to bog down adoption with rigid rules and burdensome approval processes. “Our formal program is as informal as it can possibly be,” Roitz says. AT&T runs a Web site filled with telework resources, but the company lets managers and employees make most of their own telework decisions.

It’s a conscious effort to grow the telework program at a grassroots level, according to Roitz: “The business benefit comes from having more teleworkers, not controlling your existing teleworkers.”

So far the approach is working. Uptake is enormous: About 30% of management employees worked fulltime outside of the traditional office in 2004, and another 41% worked from home an average of 1 or 2 days per week. Not only that, another 19% didn’t work from home on a regular basis, but occasionally did so when weather or other events affected their office locations. Put together, that leaves just 10% of management staff who worked only in traditional office settings during normal business hours.

Plus, satisfaction among AT&T’s virtual office staff is high. About 66% of AT&T teleworkers say they are more satisfied with their jobs since beginning their arrangements – and just 1% report they are less satisfied. In addition, 69% say they’re more satisfied with their personal and family lives – and just 2% report less satisfaction in this area.

A key part of the arrangement is it makes employees feel trusted. “Trust is something you really can’t buy,” Roitz sums  up.

As I mentioned in last week’s newsletter, this is the last telework-centric newsletter you’ll get from me. Looking ahead, Network World plans to refocus this newsletter to address not only the telework crowd but also the broader world of remote and branch offices. Please let us know what you think.