Telework lessons from Telus

Technology advances make working from home obvious choice

As the technologies allowing employees to work at home come into their own, so too does the debate about how to make telework viable for both employees and employers.

In late 2006 it was clear to Telus’ HR team the technologies allowing people to work at home had finally developed to the point where the Vancouver-based telecommunications company needed to seriously consider the option.

High-speed Internet services — the backbone allowing employees to work outside the office — were pervasive. Virtual private network (VPN) technology had matured to the point where Telus was confident employee authentication and encryption systems would keep data secure, no matter where employees were connecting to the network. Secure desktop technologies, including encrypted hard drives, biometric logins, password protection and credit-card masking, had all been refined.

Telus ran a pilot project in which 170 professional employees worked at home full time for six months. Results were measured using an online tool developed by Calgary’s Teletrips that accounted for everything from pollution and commuting time saved to the reduced costs of operating a vehicle. Telus also tracked employee morale and productivity. The results were stunning.

In six months, the teleworking employees saved 14,000 hours of time in traffic and 114 tons of greenhouse gas emissions by not commuting, while morale and productivity improved across the board.

Now, just two years later, the company’s new philosophy is to encourage employees to work where they are most effective. More than 18,000 Telus employees work at home at least occasionally, several thousand full time. In the call centres alone, Telus has more than 500 agents working at home full time and expects to add another 400.

Once an organization moves beyond the basics of high-speed Internet service, VPN and a secure desktop, the technology requirements of a teleworking employee depend largely on the job. A call-centre agent in a home office needs the same reliable, advanced phone system he would have in a call centre and, ideally, a desktop computer with a large screen to view all the required customer information simultaneously. In that case, the employer should send a technician to install the specialized equipment in the home office.

On the other hand, for a professional employee working at home occasionally, a laptop computer for the office or at home plus a BlackBerry and a wireless aircard connected to a wireless broadband network allow her to work anywhere.

However, the technology doesn’t solve all the problems associated with telework. Organizations need to ensure the right people are chosen to work at home. Someone who needs a manager leaning over his shoulder to inspire him to complete quality work isn’t the right choice. A high performer who thrives in an office environment and has a face-to-face collaborative position also isn’t a good choice — she would be unhappy working at home by herself.

The job also needs to be suited to telework. Maintenance and repair technicians or salespeople who spend much of their time at client sites will never be able to work at home. A project manager with a team spread across Canada, however, may be perfectly suited.

When deciding whether or not an employee would do well in a telework situation, consider several questions:

• Can she manage her time well?

• Is she a self-starter who can meet deadlines without micromanagement?

• Will she thrive while working in isolation?

• Does her family support the move?

Managers also need the right tools to effectively manage employees who work from home. These can include: training courses on managing remote employees; training around coaching and communicating with remote employees; and courses on health, safety and ergonomics in the home.

Ultimately, in many jobs, it doesn’t matter what time of day or where the work is getting done. What matters is not whether someone is in her chair for a given period of time, but whether the work is getting done well. It often makes sense to leave the details of how that work is accomplished to employees and their direct managers.

If an employee’s work can be done at home and she is spending less time stuck in traffic and reducing her personal environmental impact — not to mention saving money on fuel and vehicle maintenance — she’s going to be happier and more productive and the organization saves on real estate costs. The employee is also more likely to stay at the company, an important consideration in a challenging labour market. Done right, telework improves the bottom line, financially, environmentally and socially.

Ian Cruickshank is the manager of the Telus consumer solutions at home agent program. He can be reached at [email protected].

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