Benefits of taking the superhighway to work

Flexible work arrangements can take a bite out of a $2.7-billion absenteeism problem

Snowstorms. Traffic congestion. Road closures.

They can turn the morning commute into a nightmare for employees. And even when workers finish fighting their way into the office after spending hours trapped behind the wheel, distractions can continue as meeting after meeting pulls them away from daily tasks. It all adds up to a recipe for a pretty unproductive workforce.

That’s why many organizations are offering a variety of flexible working options. This can mean anything from working at a customer site to working from home for some, or all, of the time. The positive effect flexible working has on productivity and motivation means organizations may receive a greater return on investment if they offer this option to employees. Giving employees flexibility can add up to significant savings. According to Health Canada, absenteeism due to difficulties in balancing work and family responsibilities cost employers $2.7 billion last year. Allowing employees to work around family commitments and to schedules that suit them boosts morale, job satisfaction and productivity and should help employers reduce absenteeism-related costs.

Many organizations with flexible working arrangements have been able to improve retention and reduce the average number of employee sick days.

According to the Canadian Teleworkers Association, remote working can increase employee productivity by 20 per cent. Other benefits include a reduction in travel time to work, savings in travel costs and a reduction in stress levels. Cutting the amount of travelling will also have a positive effect on the environment by reducing pollution.

But despite these benefits, flexible working is not suitable for all employees. Some workers may feel more productive in the office and should not feel pressured into adopting this way of working. Others may miss the companionship the office environment offers.

Employees should consider whether their working space at home may actually hinder productivity. Weaker communicators may find it harder to keep in regular contact with colleagues, which can have an impact on team dynamics. Employers should think about how flexible working will affect remuneration packages and if employees are required to be in the office for a minimum amount of hours.

The introduction of flexible working needs to be supported by all areas of an organization to succeed. HR and information technology departments need to work together to agree on a framework and structure for rolling out programs.

There are still many managers in organizations that need to evolve their thinking from the idea that employees aren’t working if they can’t see them and are only rewarded for the hours they work in the office. This concept doesn’t jive with remote working. If employees are to be trusted to work out-of-sight, a change in management style is required. Targets must be translated into productivity-based goals rather than time-based. Many organizations will find this change beneficial because it gives employees more responsibility and empowerment, which can have a positive impact on motivation.

Getting help from IT

Enabling employees to perform their job functions while away from the office will require some investment from the IT department to implement the required technologies and ensure employees are trained to use them. Employees will expect the same levels of support they would normally receive from the IT team if problems occurred in the office. Structures need to be devised to provide this.

Before investing in any hardware or software, businesses should consider what applications would help employees in working remotely and how many employees will be using the technology.

Remote employees will require consistent access to e-mail and files that exist on corporate servers. The most cost-effective way to achieve this is by using widely available Internet technologies, such as broadband or cable services. Virtual private network (VPN) technology can use these services to provide seamless connectivity to corporate information while ensuring the corporate network is secure. Where broadband technologies are not available, other Internet services can be used effectively, albeit at slower speeds.

Mobile employees

For employees who are mostly mobile as part of their jobs, organizations should consider equipping laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs) with wireless technology enabling employees to gain access to the network via their VPN in wireless environments. Similarly, wireless access points installed in the office can allow organizations to reduce office space by implementing “hot-desking” for when employees are required to work in the office. This allows employees to connect to the network from anywhere within the office without physically plugging into the network, thereby eliminating the need for every employee to have a permanent workstation.

Another issue for remote workers is remaining easily accessible to others, regardless of their location. Ideally, calls made to a worker’s direct line should reach him wherever he is based. Calls can be re-routed by an organization’s infrastructure and be received on a desk phone, mobile phone or a “softphone” running on a computer or PDA. Using the VPN to route the calls reduces costs compared to transferring them over traditional phone lines.

Access to voicemail and faxes

In addition to the e-mail access, employees will need access to other communications sent to them such as voicemail and faxes. These need to be received and responded to in a timely fashion. Telephones or computers with VPN access can be used in conjunction with unified communication technology to access voicemail, e-mail and fax messages. If accessing from a phone, a worker can listen to voicemail, e-mail using text to speech conversion or select a fax to be sent to the machine in the home office. If accessing on a computer or PDA through the VPN, a worker can read e-mail and faxes or listen to voicemail. With appropriate technologies implemented, the remote working system should grow with the organization as an increasing numbers of employees adjust standard work patterns to include remote working. By considering employees’ flexible working needs and implementing suitable technologies for the size of the organization, return-on-investment could be as high as employee morale.

Tracy Fleming is a senior technical consultant with Avaya Canada and a remote worker. He works from his home in Barrie, Ont., connecting to the Avaya Canada head office in Markham, Ont.

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