Telework declines in U.S.: WorldatWork

Decrease partly explained by high unemployment, anxiety about job security
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/11/2011

MTS Allstream has offered a telework program for more than three years. “Workplace 2.0” is used by almost one-third of its workforce — 700 people out of 2,400 — based in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal.

The program has done very well, said Gary Davenport, vice-president of information technology at MTS Allstream in Toronto.

“We have not seen any drop in our program at all. In fact, we consider it to be very successful,” he said. “It is a highly sought-after option for people.”

However, MTS Allstream has no plans to expand the program at this point.

“Now, we’re probably more focused on, ‘How do we make the tools even better than we have today so that we can continue to enhance the productivity for people working remotely?’” said Davenport.

The company also wants teleworkers to feel they are treated equally. During the recession, some remote workers expressed concerns about being targeted unfairly for cutbacks because they were out of the office.

“I can tell you, there was discussion and concern but there was absolutely no substance to it because that’s not the way we operate,” he said, adding the company is “pretty lean and mean” so each position is important.

Concern about job security could explain some of the results of a recent survey that found telecommuting actually declined in the United States last year. The number of teleworkers — defined as employees or contractors working remotely at least one day per month — declined for the first time, to 26.2 million people, since WorldatWork began studying the phenomenon in 2003. In 2008, there were 33.7 million.

The decline in the U.S. is likely due to a combination of factors, said the report, including high unemployment, increased anxiety surrounding job security and a lack of awareness of telework options.

With so many Americans jobless, many teleworkers have been anxious about being perceived negatively compared to peers who are in the office every day, said Rose Stanley, WorldatWork work-life practice leader in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“And supervisors, because they have to prove their areas are being productive in this down economy, they’re going back perhaps to their old ways and saying, ‘Come back in, I want you back in the office, we have fewer people, there’s a lot more work to do,’” she said.

“I believe the economy and anxiety on both sides now, for face-time, has made that a bigger number. And, as time goes on, you will see, when we do our next report, the numbers go back up because... the business reasons for offering telework are still valid.”

When employers were asked if they changed their flexibility offerings because of the recession, 80 per cent said no. And the percentage of people who telework more often than once per month increased in 2010, found the survey. Eighty-four per cent of teleworkers did so one day per week or more, up from 72 per cent in 2008.

Throughout the history of telework, most reports have clearly demonstrated this is a growing phenomenon, said Bob Fortier, founder and president of the Canadian Telework Association in Ottawa. But every once in a while, a report shows telework has levelled off or is dying.

“In this particular case... it quotes a significant decline, like a 22 per cent decline — it completely flies in the face of all of the other major trends and reports that we see,” he said.

By and large, the trend grows, said Fortier, citing a March 2011 report from International Data Corporation that predicted the number of home offices will grow by three million by 2015.

A lot of companies look at ways to cut costs during bad economic times and telework can help by reducing real estate expenses and giving employees an option to work from home to avoid higher turnover, he said.

“Even though the numbers are still relatively small and growing, a lot if not the majority of organizations realize that, ‘We need to start paying attention to our operating costs and our way of doing business.’”

MTS Allstream was able to shed a number of floors in its Toronto office with the telework program, said Davenport. The company was also keen to reduce the commuting time for employees while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. And being less concentrated in select areas allows for greater business continuity, he said, as seen during the G20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 when many employees worked from home.

“To attract the brightest and best, people want the option to be able to work in a variety of ways and we feel this is one of the things that helps create us as a bit of a differentiator in the marketplace,” said Davenport.

When employers are stuck in a down economy and not able to offer merit increases or bonuses, they are looking for ways to retain key talent, said Stanley. “Work-life options, especially in the flexibility realm, is not a huge cost outlay, if anything.”

Potential barriers

Many employees may be unaware of telework options because they are often implemented informally, said the report, with no written policies or forms and implementation that is inconsistent and left to manager discretion. While 83 per cent of employers offer ad hoc teleworking, only 28 per cent communicate the benefit to recruits, found WorldatWork.

Another possible deterrent is a lack of training. Only 21 per cent of employers train managers on how to implement and support flexible work arrangements, found WorldatWork, and only 17 per cent train workers on how to be a successful teleworker.

“It’s critical for any organization and its managers and employees to be educated on this if they are to get involved,” said Fortier. “They need to understand what this is, how to do it well, how to maximize the productivity, the dedication, the loyalty, work output and how to allow remote work to continue to take place in such a way that it integrates well within a company’s existing infrastructure of HR, IT, real property, legal, administrative and other areas.”

No manager stands over an employee eight hours per day and, when starting a telework program, the employee and supervisor should sit down to discuss expected goals and results, said Stanley. “A good manager manages by results anyway.”

MTS Allstream has had some supervisors or managers struggle with the program and not being able to see workers directly but that’s where HR does more coaching, said Davenport. Plus the teleworkers are evaluated for their performance — and if the arrangement isn’t working, employees can be taken off the program, he said.

“As much as there is still supervision while they remote work, it is different, we do require them to be independent and good performers.”

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