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IT Salary Report: Telecommuting increasingly common option for execs

With high gas prices, IT execs who value productivity and work/life balance have now turned to telecommuting options for their staffs.

Work/life balance. Employee retention. Now we can add $4 for a gallon of gas to the list of reasons that more and more IT executives have begun to consider telecommuting.

In a recent survey of 150 enterprise CIOs and IT managers, 33% of respondents said they have increased the number of days they telecommute to the office. Overall, 75% said they began telecommuting in some capacity before the advent of this year's gas crisis.

While $4 gas appears to have been the tipping point for many an IT executive to reconsider his or her physical work environment -- and whether it is truly necessary to work from the office -- there are many other factors to consider when determining whether to institute a telecommuting policy, whether solely for the executive, for the staff, or both.

"As gas prices got worse, I was getting calls from employees saying that they couldn't afford to drive to work anymore and asking how they could get a job telecommuting," said Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization whose aim is to support and enable mobile and distributed workforces through research, education, technology and legislation.

During the past couple of months, Wilsker's organization has received an increasing number of calls from executives who seek telecommuting-friendly situations in the midst of rising gas prices. "They make a good living, with a six-figure income, but it's starting to affect their discretionary income," Wilsker said.

But it hasn't stopped there. "I would also get calls from employers saying that more and more employees were coming to them, asking, 'Can I look at telecommuting? Otherwise, I quit,'" Wilsker said.

Telecommuting tradeoffs

Indeed, employee retention is one of the most important factors to consider when examining telecommuting, Wilsker said. The cost of replacing an employee, especially a higher-level worker, can be pricey -- a cost only magnified when a company factors in the expenses involved with hiring a headhunter, the time spent by existing employees on interviewing and processing prospective employees, and the time and effort required to bring a new employee up to speed.

For many managers, worker productivity also weighs heavily in the decision whether they, or other staff members, should be permitted to work from home. Many managers fear staff members will put fewer hours into their job if they telecommute.

But Wilsker said that in reality it's the opposite: Many employees actually work longer hours on the days they telecommute. He attributes the increase in the number of hours worked to the fact that telecommuting workers no longer have to get ready and commute to the office, so they work during that time instead.

"We've seen some studies that show employees work an hour more each day," Wilsker said. "You tend to knock off work a little later because you don't have to drive home. And, after dinner, you have a tendency to check your email again."

Needless to say, trust in one's staff is an important part of the telecommuting equation. Wilsker said it's necessary for managers to identify telecommunicating candidates among those staff members who have already demonstrated that they work well independently and without supervision. It's also important to establish benchmarks for productivity for both office-based and telecommuting staffs to ensure that each group pulls its weight.

Finally, Wilsker emphasized that working at home requires the right kind of environment for workers to be productive. "If you have kids around the house, you need to have an office with a door," he said.

An increasingly common option

Tom Trancoso, an IT senior manager at ExpressJet Airlines Inc., said the Houston-based company does not have specific policies with regard to telecommuting, "but we're looking at it very strongly as an initiative."

Given the price of fuel and the increased responsibilities for staff in the face of personnel cuts, "we're trying to do everything possible to make it a comfortable environment to continue working in. We want to keep people working here who might be considering leaving."

In particular, the company has considered the telecommuting option for its development team. But first it's weighing the importance of face time and visibility on work performance.

"They don't really interact a lot with other folks, at least not to the extent that they need to be here very much," Trancoso said. The 10-person group might begin by telecommuting three or four days each week and coming into the office the remainder of the time.

One advantage to telecommuting, Trancoso said, is it frees up office space. The company has considered consolidating office space and shutting down one of its four Houston offices. Telecommuting would obviously aid in that effort.

I don't want to spend 12 hours a day, five days a week here at the office. I'll spend 12 hours each day working, but some of it has got to be from home.

Tom Trancoso, IT senior manager, ExpressJet Airlines Inc.

But telecommuting is not for everyone, Trancoso warned. "I think there are a certain number of people who need to have the discipline of getting up and going to the office to change their mind-set," Trancoso said. "Those same people, if they didn't leave the house, would have trouble. … They can't get out of the fuzzy-slipper mentality."

Trancoso said he occasionally telecommutes but usually goes into the office. "I'm flexible enough that I can choose when I work from home, but our CEO likes to be able to reach out and touch you when he wants, so I try to make it a point to be here," he said.

But he acknowledges that some workers -- himself included -- are actually more productive at home. "I'll work all day, as well as take care of stuff around the house, and then at 10 at night, I'll look at my watch and think, 'I should probably wrap it up,'" he said.

With an increasing set of responsibilities at work, Trancoso said, "I'm going to start doing some more of it at home. I don't want to spend 12 hours a day, five days a week here at the office. I'll spend 12 hours each day working, but some of it has got to be from home."

Thankfully, technology supports his company's intentions. The firm already has a virtual private network and, "as long as you can get a good connection at home, staff can do what they need to do -- it's like they're sitting in the office," he said. "The technology is there, it's proven, it's solid and works well, and for anyone giving any consideration to telecommuting, the last concern should be whether technology will support it -- because it will."

Team building via telecommuting

Kelley Lovette, a senior manager of IT at Houston-based Waste Management Inc., said she has an entire team of field-based corporate employees who work either from a field location or from a home office and who come to the corporate office only once or twice a year. The IT department at the 47,000-employee company has about 400 employees and 100 contractors; Lovette oversees 27 of them.

Lovette said she communicates with staff members via email, phone, WebEx conferencing, shared documents and calendar, and other such technologies. To ensure that distance doesn't diminish team spirit, the team conducts baby photo contests and "personal-facts bingo."

"They also work remotely together in 'task force' groups, established to make recommendations to improve communication and coordination," she said. "Because most of the team has worked together on major projects, where they have traveled together extensively, they are closer and tend to know more about each other personally than employees who work in the office together every day."

Lovette has personally experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting. "For almost seven years, I worked either from home or traveled to our group or corporate office, and at the time, I loved the flexibility of being able to go running at lunch without having to worry about being presentable afterwards or starting to cook dinner while still monitoring email," she said.

Still, she now willingly works in the corporate office daily and -- despite rising gas prices -- believes it's worth it. "I like the separation between work and home life," she said. "I had never realized that I had felt like I was 'at work' 24/7 because my office was so accessible."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rachel Lebeaux, Associate Editor.

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