Building loyalty outside the office: Page 2

Posted February 1, 2000

Ann Howe

(Page 2 of 3)

Lessons learned about telecommuting

Make any program voluntary, because not everyone wants to telecommute.

Create a "no surprises" process that outlines the responsibilities for managers and employees, such as meeting deadlines and milestones and keeping the lines of communication open.

Outline the program requirements and make sure they are followed by all telecommuters. These should include building a business case, developing a schedule for on-site and off-site work, articulating business objectives, and agreeing upon deliverables.

Educate employees on everything from when to call the help desk to how to deal with family issues.

Provide the telecommuter with the technology and the tools to be successful: a hotline for technical support, equipment that enables a smooth transition from the office to the home, and a peer network for exchanging ideas and sharing information.

Trial and error

Still, not everyone is interested in working from home and taking on the responsibility of maintaining their own systems. Some don't have the discipline or desire to work solo. For employers, this means tackling some tough issues. Figuring out who can and cannot telecommute and why requires careful planning and training. It also needs to be a joint effort between companies and their employees.

At Merrill Lynch, two forces pushed the company into telecommuting: the Clean Air Act of 1990, and a 1995 survey showing that employees wanted such programs. The company opted to address turnover and the inability to attract employees with Internet skills by taking the high ground; initiating a strategy that would make Merrill Lynch the employer of choice for IT professionals. The Private Technology Group became a prime target for a telecommuting pilot program.

The pilot's goals were to ensure consistency across the organization and to encourage a seamless transition between the home and the workplace. Merrill Lynch placed 36 of the PCT group's employees in the pilot. Although it proved unsuccessful, the company learned that an effective telecommuting program requires more than a paper plan.

Half the employees left the program because they weren't interested in telecommuting. This action taught Merrill Lynch its first lesson--telecommuting needs to be voluntary. The responsibility of keeping home systems up and running frustrated some employees. Merrill Lynch subsequently determined that it needed to provide training on such issues as how to set up a home office, calling technical support and keeping in contact with one's staff. Along with a knowledgeable technical support crew, it also needed a standard computing platform, because different systems, laptops and desktops have different needs.

Doing it right

After the disastrous pilot, Merrill Lynch hired Bill Gordon, a telecommuting guru, who helped them define and develop a clear strategy.

Define a business case. Employees need to develop a business case for a telecommuting request. To be successful, it must include managerial input, the nature of the project, how many days the telecommuter expects to work from home, and how the employee will communicate. Personal characteristics gleaned from an employee's performance evaluation--self-starter, excellent communicator, capable of working with little or no supervision--can be used to make the business case.

Merrill Lynch wants an employee to provide dedicated office space, ideally a site physically separated from the remainder of the home. Doing so gives the employee privacy, provides security for the office, and enables employees to "walk away" from work at the end of the day. Telecommuters supply the furnishings, and the company supplies the hardware, software and telephone lines.

Provide business training. Telecommuting employees are given two hours of training on how to set up a home office.

Provide manager training. Managers are required to train on how to effectively run a virtual group and keep an open communication. The training has been so successful that Merrill Lynch created an internal network to let managers share information about overseeing telecommuters.

Create a simulation lab. The simulation lab, a small room with windows that represents a home office, is used to give an employee the opportunity to personally experience working in isolation. During the six days of simulation lab training, the telecommuter undergoes a technical orientation. Employees learn how to call-in for technical support, plug in the various elements of their home office, and access the network from home. This is key, as employees are responsible for keeping the systems in running order. If a problem can't be solved remotely, a technician is dispatched to the home.

Provide on-going training and support. Merrill Lynch conducts surveys and focus groups among telecommuters to continuously gather information on how the program is working and how it can be improved. The result is that the company is holding on to critical skills and is recognized by employees as family-friendly.

Another view

Another major firm, Dun & Bradstreet Inc., allows telecommuting but with less openness than Merrill Lynch. The leading provider of business-to-business credit, receivables management and decision-support services, Dun & Bradstreet employs 10,000 people worldwide, including 300 software developers working at the company's Parsippany, N.J., offices.

In 1994, Dun & Bradstreet launched a telecommuting pilot. Advances in technology such as ISDN lines made it possible for systems analysts, mainframe programmers and similar professionals to work from home and still stay connected.

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