A new way to work

Businesses have more reasons to embrace what used to be called telecommuting

Published June 4, 2006

Soaring gas prices after Hurricane Katrina last year led George Gordon to a different route for his business. Telecommuting was now on the map.

“Employees appreciated it,” said Gordon, chief executive of Enporion in Tampa, which creates supply chain management systems for businesses. “I think they’re equally as productive (at home) as they are here.”

Gordon set only a couple rules for his 32 employees, almost all of whom participate: First, they had to forward their phones and be reachable, even using instant messages. Second, they can work no more than two days a week at home.

Gas prices remain high, but they are not the sole driving force in an uptick in interest in telecommuting, now often called telework. Some businesses see it as part of a continuity plan in case a hurricane closes their offices. Some find it a less expensive alternative to building or renting more space as they grow. Some consider it a perk for employees.

And some advocates say it's a way to get cars off congested roads. The average commuter drives 32 miles round trip a day, or more than 8,000 miles a year, according to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. It advocates telework to reduce demand for gas and, it says, drive down prices.

A report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released in May estimated 20-million workers telecommute. In the Tampa Bay region, the number of workers who telework has increased from about

1 percent in a 2001 survey to 9 percent last year. Yet the number of companies that offer telework options in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties is a modest 14 percent.

More companies likely make it available, says Sandra Moody, executive director of Bay Area Commuter Services, but they don't want to talk about it.

“They don’t have anything formal and they don’t want anything formal,” Moody said. “They're trying to keep it under the radar. Businesses are afraid that people will demand it as a benefit, which it is not. ... It's a privilege.’’

Bay Area Commuter Services, which serves a five-county area, works under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Transportation to promote alternatives to driving to work alone. It consults with private businesses, government agencies and others.

When gas prices spike, companies seek the agency’s help. But hurricanes the past two years and the need to keep businesses operating after storms have been a bigger factor.

“Last September when gas got to $3 (a gallon), everybody was panicking,” Moody said. “We couldn’t meet with people fast enough. This time, when it approached $3, we had none of that frenzy.”

It may take prices rising to perhaps $3.50 a gallon to generate more interest from businesses for telework, she says.

The bursting of the tech bubble may have slowed talk of telework, but advances in technology make it easier for people to work from home or other locations. The mobile work force has grown, with one study saying home-based workers can have more than three workplaces.

“People are increasingly comfortable working from a distance,” said Debra A. Dinnocenzo, a consultant and author of several books, including 101 Tips for Telecommuters. “Technology has gotten better, (its) capabilities faster,  cheaper (to buy) and we have BlackBerries now that we didn't have six years ago.”

Limiting the number of days isn't unusual, Dinnocenzo says, especially when the company is in the same town as the employee. And for some companies, it’s important to have face time in the office.

“As a small company, building (a corporate) culture is important to us,” said Gordon of Enporion, also president of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. “You tend not to build a company culture if everyone’s working virtually.”

While Gordon jumped in to telework with no formal plan, Jessica White of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, who works on the Telework Tampa Bay project, says the agency recommends a slower process for companies to follow.

The agency suggests a six-month pilot project with a group of employees. A company should develop policies and training, and follow the test period with a survey.

“It allows them to see where weaknesses are and fix that up before they open it to more people,” White said.

One of the key elements in persuading companies to at least give telework a try is overcoming the idea that an employee has to be in the office — and watched — to ensure productivity.

“It’s really hard for some employers to completely trust their employees,” White said. “It's having them out of their view. As long as they look busy (in the office), they feel they have some control.”

The solution to build that trust, experts say, is to set goals that employees have to meet while working at home. If it’s successful, the employer and employee benefit.

“Telecommuting I believe is now a critical strategic business initiative,” Dinnocenzo said. “It's beyond a fun, perk thing we do for employees.’”

Dave Gussow can be reached at dgussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4165. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/tech.