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Teleworking Has Come a Long Way for Workers

National Telework Week, slated to start Monday, recognizes the financial and employee retention benefits of working remotely.

In the startup years at computer networking firm Cisco Systems Inc., employee Brian Christensen moved from the San Francisco home he adored to be closer to the company’s San Jose, California, headquarters. Nearly 18 years ago, there wasn’t a timely way other than driving to make the almost 50-mile, 90-minute, traffic-clogged commute, and he was working 10-hour days.

Today, Christensen laughs at the irony of that move. As a director of information systems for Cisco, he’s now responsible for home and mobile-service offerings for the $43 billion company of 63,000 employees.

Roughly 90 percent of a random sampling of employees he recently surveyed reported working from home at least one day a week. Christensen works from home several days a week and encourages co-workers and clients to also do so.

“The results from Cisco’s move toward teleworking has really been about empowerment,” Christensen says. “We’re making sure employees are empowered to be successful in their job, and that’s not measured by the hours they’re in the office. It’s based more on their results.”

Because Cisco is a networking company, it makes perfect sense for it to be at the forefront of a movement promoting the many benefits of teleworking—not just as an employee perk but as a vital way to make business operations more global, attract and retain the highest-quality workers and boost employee productivity.

Cisco is the lead sponsor of National Telework Week, which is slated to begin Monday.

The event’s organizer is the Telework Exchange, a Virginia-based public-private partnership that promotes teleworking, especially in the federal government. By pledging to work remotely, each employee can save an average of $60 a week by not commuting, or about $3,000 per year, said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange.

In the years since Auten co-founded her group in 2005, she’s worked with scores of federal agencies to identify cost savings through teleworking. One of the best examples was the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which Auten says documented more than $19 million in savings since moving its employees to a telework model more than 14 years ago. The savings came largely from reduced real estate costs and transportation expenses, and reductions in employee turnover, she says.

Telework Exchange leaders say that if all full-time, salaried workers telework just two days per week, they’d save $215 billion and spare the environment 143 million tons of pollutants.

Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. adult working population, or roughly 26.2 million people, teleworked in 2010, meaning they worked from home or another remote location for at least an entire day a month, says WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based advocacy group for human resource issues. That figure has been growing steadily since 2004, when about 7 million workers teleworked, says Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader at WorldatWork.

Still, the number of teleworking employees declined in 2010, from a high of 33.7 million in 2009, Stanley says. She attributes that to recession-induced layoffs and employee fears that telecommuting might jeopardize their standing with their bosses.

Indeed, companies that have shifted to teleworking strategies say it’s not easy to get everyone on board. At Ryan LLC, a $233 million global tax-services firm, many middle managers balked at a flexible work policy introduced in 2007, said Delta Emerson, senior vice president and chief organizational development officer at the Dallas-based firm.

“Some managers adapt to it really quickly and easily, but others feel like, ‘If I can’t see you, you’re not working,’ ” Emerson says. But more managers are on board now that they see the results, she says. For one, voluntary turnover has dramatically improved, from 18 percent to 6.5 percent today.

“My argument has always been, ‘These people are adults. They’re passionate about what they do. They care about their personal success,’ ” Emerson says. “What difference does it make how much time they spend in the office?”

Meg McSherry Breslin is a writer based in the Chicago area. To comment email editors@workforce.com.