The office is awfully quiet these days.
That’s because half of American workers are toiling away offsite at least
part of the time. They’re working from home, from a hotel room or at a
customer site. Where they are varies. Where you won’t find them is behind
their desk down the hall.
For workers, that means more freedom, less traffic and a better shot at
actually achieving that allusive work/life balance.
For the IT department, however, it means more planning, extending the
network and increasing security.
Virtual workers mean real headaches for IT. And brace yourselves, because
over the next several years, millions more will forego a desk for a corner
of the kitchen table and the power lunch for picking their kids up after
According to the International Teleworkers Association Council (ITAC), there
are 28 million teleworkers in the United States. And take note that a
teleworker is not exactly a telecommuter. Teleworker is a broader term,
including people who work outside the traditional workplace a few days out
of the week, whereas a telecommuter is seen as someone who works remotely
Regardless of the specifics of the newly coined definitions, working offsite
is on the rise – in a big way. The ITAC predicts that the number of
teleworkers in the U.S. will increase by 6 million a year for the next three
The workforce has officially gone remote.
Telecommuting or teleworking is no longer an exotic or controversial
concept. Today, the fuzzy slipper crowd rules — you know, the folks with
more pairs of pajamas than business suits and where a coffee break means
brewing a pot and sipping it on the deck instead of dropping coins into a
machine in the lunch room.
“As our online tools have gotten better, it’s often more productive not to
be in the office,” says Pam Stanford, director of Dynamic Workplaces
Solutions at IBM, which has seen 80,000, or a quarter of its workforce, go
remote. “I get more work done when I’m telecommuting. If I have a 2 o’clock
meeting, I work until 1:59 and then call in to the meeting. At a physical
location, you get up, get a coffee, grab your Think Pad and fight over the
plug-ins in the meeting room. There’s a lot of air time you can compress
right out of your day.”
And IBM isn’t just getting more work out of Stanford, whose entire team is
made up of telecommuters. The high-tech giant is saving a lot of money on
all its teleworkers. IBM reports that workers going remote saves the company
more than $1 billion over a 10-year span.
“It’s much more cost effective,” says Mike Bell, vice president and
research director of the Workforce/Workplace Research Group at the industry
analyst firm, Gartner Group. “If they can give up their assigned
workstations, that saves real estate money… If you can promote desk
sharing back at the ranch, in combination with remote working, you can cut
your costs per person anywhere from a half to a third.”
Bell and his colleagues predict that by 2006, the fundamental work unit will
be a virtual team. And that makes financial sense when you figure that the
average cost of an in-office seat is $24,000, according to Bell. Compare
that to the $6,000 to $8,000 price tag for a remote worker. The cost
difference is largely due to the enormous price of corporate real estate.
“The trend for companies is to shrink their real estate footprint and
designate offices as shared space,” says Bell. “Have folks work in a
network of places – from their homes, the road, a hotel and a shared desk in
And companies are reaping the savings.
Sun Microsystems Inc. reports an annual savings of $75 million. AT&T does
even better, reporting yearly savings of $200 million. Proctor & Gamble
pockets $100 million thanks to its remote workers.
While the teleworking phenomenon may be benefiting the corporate bottom
line, it isn’t so easy on the IT department, which has to enable these
millions of workers to be just as efficient and just as connected as if they
were working right down the hall.
Tim Kane, president of the ITAC and CEO of Kinetic Workplace, a company that
helps customers implement offsite work programs, says getting the right
technology in place is the biggest obstacle to successfully moving workers
“One of the main inhibitors to telework has been speed and with broadband
that comes off the table,” says Kane, who says executives see teleworking
as a tool to compete for and retain talent. “If I was an IT director, I’d
look at these drivers and sit down and take a hard look at having a network
that goes beyond the walls of the organization itself.”
And Kane says that means plotting out extra security, erecting more VPNs,
and making company information, like vacation time and work policies,
available online. It also means making sure that every teleworker has three
or four means of communication – email, instant messaging, telephone lines,
online meeting software and collaboration software.
“If the IT department hasn’t thought through these technologies, then
they’re behind the curve,” says Gartner’s Bell. “Do they have necessary
remote access and security? Can employees call in through VPNs from hotels
or from home? With more managers and professionals moving from desktops to
laptops, have you thought through support issues, like asset management and
increased security? Do you have 24/7 support capability so when a problem
hits for someone on the road, they’re not hearing that there won’t be anyone
in support until 9 the next morning?”
IBM’s Stanford says IT leaders need to sit down and plot out a plan for
handling what can easily become a major drain on a department already
plagued by budget cuts and layoffs.
“It’s definitely tough on IT,” she says. “Someone just can’t declare
they’re going to start telecommuting and take their computer and go home.
You have to have a plan.”