Building loyalty outside the office

When properly implemented and supported, telecommuting programs can benefit companies as well as employees.
Posted February 1, 2000
By

Ann Howe


(Page 1 of 3)

Private Client Technology group of Merrill Lynch & Co.

The company: The Private Client Technology (PCT) group of Merrill Lynch, located in Somerset, N.J., has 2,100 employees, 90% of whom are IT professionals. The group is responsible for all Web activity for Merrill Lynch branches. Merrill Lynch is one of the world's leading financial management and advisory companies, with offices in 44 countries and total client assets exceeding $1.5 trillion.

The problem: Merrill Lynch had three reasons to consider telecommuting: the need to comply with the federal Clean Air Act; employees who wanted tools to balance personal and professional responsibilities; and the desire to be known as the IT employer of choice.

The solution: Create a flexible work program, including telecommuting, enabling employees to work comfortably and effectively from home.

Janice Miholics
"Telecommuters consistently are high achievers and among our best performers," says Janice Miholics, Merrill Lynch. They are, say Merrill Lynch surveys, 15% more productive than nontelecommuters.

At Merrill Lynch & Co. there is no such thing as downtime. With the responsibility of managing assets worth more than $1.5 trillion in 900 offices in 44 countries, employees need to work in harmony, accessing information systems that are reliable, secure and always available.

So why would a company with so much at stake offer IT professionals the opportunity to telecommute? Doesn't its systems managers, programmers and the like need to be on-site to ensure security, reliability and availability? Not anymore. From cellular telephones to laptops equipped with proprietary software, as long as users have connectivity, their location doesn't matter to Merrill Lynch. The job can be done as well from home as it can from the office, and sometimes even better.

Telecommuting improves employee morale, reduces turnover, and decreases absenteeism, not to mention the money and time it saves. Factoring such things as reduced absenteeism and lower retention costs, a company can save about $10,000 per employee through telecommuting, according to a study conducted last summer at the behest of AT&T and the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC).

There are three main reasons companies offer telecommuting. The Clean Air Act of 1990 mandates that certain metropolitan areas such as New York City reduce vehicular traffic. Employees are clamoring for telecommuting to balance work with family issues, including elder care, day care, doctor's appointments and parent-teacher meetings. And human resources departments have argued successfully that telecommuting is a retention tool because employees consider it a major benefit.

As telecommuting is proven to reduce turnover and absenteeism, more firms will offer the option of working at home, maintains ITAC President John Edwards. And this option will extend to IT professionals, according to Edwards, because they are particularly well-suited for telecommuting. IT professionals have the knowledge, background, training, and gut understanding to install software, connect a printer to a laptop, or click through a series of "Help" screens to find an online solution to a problem.

How technology works - or doesn't - is not a mystery to today's IT professionals. They can use e-mail, write software code, create business presentations or access video-based technology to "attend" meetings while working a home, to name a few options.

Assessing the situation

Because the benefits are a clear differentiator, the telecommuting trend is growing, says Gail Martin, executive director of ITAC. Today's employee sees value in balancing work and family, and telecommuting provides one means of achieving that goal.

Ask the members of Merrill Lynch's Private Client Technology (PCT) group, based in Somerset, N.J., and most will heartily agree. PCT has 2,100 employees, 90% of whom are IT professionals. The group is responsible for all Web activity for Merrill Lynch branches.

Through employee surveys, Merrill Lynch has learned that PCT telecommuters are 15% more productive than their commuting counterparts and average three fewer sick days per year. Also, the company has reduced turnover by 6% and improved morale 30%.

The reasons behind these statistics are simple. Telecommuters waste less time stuck in traffic, individuals with family issues are better able to balance those concerns, and sick days are reduced because telecommuters don't have to wage the exhausting traffic battle.

Telecommuting opportunities are open to all levels of IT workers at Merrill Lynch, including senior management. Take Jill Mullen, first vice president, Strategic Technology Initiatives. A direct report to the company's chief technology officer, Mullen spends one day a week at home, limiting the long journey between her New York office and her Connecticut home.

Mullen manages a staff of 30 and is responsible for running the corporate strategy group and determining the future direction of Merrill Lynch's technology infrastructure. To ensure the staff knows her location, Mullen leaves each Wednesday as a work-at-home day where she catches up on e-mail and attends to any child care issues. Through telephones, e-mail and fax, Mullen is connected to her office. Telecommuting was a benefit that Mullen says made her choose Merrill Lynch as an employer.


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