‘Telework’ toolbox

Telecommuting poses challenges for workplace communications

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Print this page by Tim Loughran

In her job as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia for about a year, Linda Carne says she’s still trying to make complete peace with one important aspect of the telecommuting program she inherited from her predecessor.

“When I got here, I asked myself,  ‘How do I know that my people are not out on their sundecks, in their jammies, with a cup of coffee in their hand, instead of doing their jobs?’ . . . To me the system did not supply any of the accountability measures I wanted to see in place.”

The nonprofit group adopted a teleworking policy to reduce much of the unproductive travel time and mileage expenses incurred by its 14 full-time membership managers. They are spread throughout 30 counties and six cities in Virginia.

To minimize communications problems with her remote employees, Carne uses video teleconferencing and requires that each of her “teleworkers” come to the Mechanicsville office for face-to-face meetings one and a half days every other week. She also decided to scrap her organization’s computer server and the expense of buying multiple software licenses for each telecommuter’s laptop. She moved everyone in the organization to cloud computing to save money and to have a better way to audit workers’ online activities.

“I measure success based on the time each of my managers does not spend with their fannies in a seat. For us it’s about being involved with the community,” says Carne. “But because we work almost exclusively with parents and volunteers in the evenings and on weekends, and we don’t do piecework, and we don’t use traditional account measurements to evaluate job performance, it’s a bit more difficult for an organization like ours … These challenges are not unique, but they are a continuing issue for us.”

Accountability and the need for clear, consistent communication between managers and their off-site work force is an ongoing challenge for telecommuting workplaces, even for executives with years of experience managing telecommuters.

In 1988 Kathy Benson, the president of Office Remedies Inc. in Herndon, started what was originally a data-entry company in her basement. All her workers were paid by the freelance job, and hand delivered their finished work on floppy disks. Today, the two-time member of Inc. magazine’s list of “5000 Fastest Growing Companies” employs 85 workers in Florida and Virginia, and about three dozen staffers work off-site every day.
Whenever Benson or a member of her staff detects any decline in the performance of a telecommuter, the problem is addressed immediately. Her options include making more frequent telephone calls, requiring daily (instead of weekly) progress reports or adding more workers to a project so it can be delivered on time. “A manager needs the same skills for an employee who teleworks as he or she does for someone who always works from the office,” says Benson. “Some need a little more guidance, and managers need to know that going in.” 

That’s pretty much the same message Jennifer T. Alcott delivers to company owners and managers she recruits to Telework!VA, the decade-old program she oversees for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).  “It’s not an all-or-nothing solution. It is what you want it to be,” she says.

Launched in 2001, Telework!VA was designed to reduce traffic and save money on highway construction and repairs in the three most traffic-clogged regions of the state (Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and metropolitan Richmond). So far, 200 companies have enrolled in the program.

In exchange for a promise to eliminate at least six round-trip workday commutes per month over the course of two years, companies with a minimum of 20 employees in these regions can recover up to $35,000 in leasing expenses directly related to setting up new telecommuting programs.

For example, laptops, webcams, mobile phones, high-speed Internet connections and similar equipment often used in a telecommuter’s home office are eligible for an 80 percent reimbursement. Companies also can get a 50 percent reimbursement for satellite office space, high-capacity network servers, wireless hotspot technology or any specialized software needed to facilitate secure communications between managers and employees working from a remote location.

Come next year, interest in telecommuting will likely rise across the state, according to Alcott, when a temporary change to the state tax code takes effect.  Under legislation passed by the General Assembly in March, companies of any size in any region of Virginia will become eligible for a total of $50,000 in nonrefundable income tax credits for any DRPT-approved telework investments made during the calendar years 2012 and 2013.

“It will be great,” says Alcott. “There is no minimum payroll requirement … Qualifying companies in our three existing service regions can opt for Telework!VA reimbursements, or the tax credit … Now, companies in the Telework!VA must lease their new computer equipment in order to qualify for reimbursement. Under the tax credit program, they can purchase that equipment outright … It will provide a broad range of choices for businesses all across Virginia.”

Virginia companies interested in launching telework programs usually begin with a series of education sessions with Alcott, Von Tisdale, her counterpart at the GRTC Transit System’s RideFinders unit in Richmond, or Delores Gee, her colleague at the TRAFFIX division of Hampton Transit. While the DRPT’s main goals are fewer traffic jams and less spending on highway projects, these experts try to show employers how telecommuting can improve profits. “We’re all about business growth,” says Alcott.

Working individually, the trio begins by helping company owners and managers scrutinize their payroll by occupation to select full-time and part-time jobs that might be performed more profitably off-site. They then help managers screen and select the employees best suited to work at home or another remote location.
Thirdly, they help management write up a job performance agreement between the company and the teleworker that addresses issues such as daily and weekly work schedules, job performance metrics, a list of company-owned equipment and a guarantee that the telecommuter will work from a dedicated work space with a dedicated phone and not from the family room or the kitchen table.

According to Benson, even with her 23 years of experience with telecommuting, she learned a lot from Alcott and the DRPT. “I soon realized that for many years we were a little too loosey-goosey. We did not have the best communications between managers and the in-house staff … We’ve always been committed to telecommuting, but Telework!VA helped us bring it to another level, much more formal, more thorough, with a lot less misunderstanding about deadlines and expectations. It has improved our productivity immensely.” 

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