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5 Things You Need to Know About Telecommuting

05/04/2015 09:27 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016

The debates around open vs. closed office spaces are continuing to heat up and I still think these debates are absolutely pointless. As I've said many times, the debate shouldn't be around cubicle or open space, it should instead be all about workplace flexibility. That is giving the employees the option to work how they want to work and not how your organization tells them they should work. A part of this workplace flexibility includes telework that is working from places other than the office; Dell, Aetna, and Xerox are among some of the most forwarding thinking and progressive companies when it comes to offering telecommuting options. Thanks to Kathy Gardner and the folks over at Flexjobs.com, I was able to speak with business leaders at all three of these companies to better understand how and why these programs were implemented.

From Xerox I spoke with: Travis Pierce, Xerox Virtual Office Program Director, and William Castle, Xerox Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President, HR Business Process Effectiveness. From Dell I spoke with Dane Parker, VP of Global Facilities and EHS (environment, health, and safety). From Aetna I spoke with Susan Williams, Director, HR Policy & Employment Law Compliance.

First some background information. Xerox employs over 180,000 employees in 180 countries around the world --  70,000 of these employees are based in the U.S. and 11% (8,000 employees) of them work remotely 100% of the time. Many thousands of other employees have telecommuting options on an "as needed" basis. Aetna employs 48,000 people and 43% of them telecommute (in some form). Dell employs around 100,000 people and around 20% of their workforce telecommutes.

Here's what I learned from speaking with all three of these companies.

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Telecommuting is a business strategy not a perk

Talent is no longer within a 5 or 10 mile radius of where your organization is based, some of the smartest people that your organization can hire may be hundreds of thousands of miles away. Telecommuting allows you to work with top talent regardless of where they are or what time zone they might be in. Not only that, but offering telecommuting options is also a great way to retain top talent by giving them more flexibility. Xerox has been offering telecommuting options since the 1970's when employees would literally take home their key punch clocks to finish their work. Dell and Aetna both echoed the strategic importance of telework, and Aetna has also been practicing telecommuting since they first launched their program around 20 years ago. None of the people I spoke with reference flexible work or telecommuting as a "nice to have," all of these companies view it as a business imperative that is required to stay competitive in the modern workforce.

Telework isn't for every employee

At Xerox before telework is considered, an employee takes a self-assessment to determine if telework is a realistic option. A manager then takes a similar assessment about the employee and the two discuss options together. Aetna evaluates telework options based on three things: individual (does the employee have the right capabilities and competencies), job function (can the work be performed at home), and home environment (must meet security standards). All three companies acknowledge that telework isn't possible for every single employee, for example people that work in a manufacturing facility.

Education and training is a must

It's important to make sure that managers know how to communicate and collaborate with virtual employees and vice versa. This means not only understanding the soft skills, but also understanding how to use the right technologies to facilitate the desired interaction. Virtual employees also need to receive their own type of training. At Dell, for example, employees are able to take training courses that teach them how to manage their career and how to progress through the company as a virtual employee.

HR and IT must work together

Although the business justification for telecommuting seems to mainly come from HR teams or specific lines of business, the technology framework required to enable telework always comes from the IT teams. This means that HR and IT teams must form a close working relationship. IT must understand the business requirements that employees are asking for around telework and HR teams must work to understand the technical needs, resources, and limitations of technology to enable telework. For example, at Dell telework is led by HR and facilities teams, but they work very closely with IT to understand security and feature requirements from technology solutions.

The benefits of telework are massive, both for the company and the employees

Dell has seen the highest engagement and satisfaction levels from employees that are given telecommuting options. However, it's interesting to note that these are employees that sometimes come into an office. They are not 100% full-time telecommuters. Aetna has saved between 15-25% on their real estate costs and in 2014 alone has reduced their carbon footprint by preventing employees from driving 127 million miles, which saved 5.3 million gallons of gas and reduced CO2 emissions by 46,700 metric tons. At Xerox annually, teleworkers drive 92 million fewer miles, which saves 4.6 million gallons of gas a year which and translates into a savings of over $10 million. Dell's flexible work program impacts around 20,000 employees or 20% of their total workforce. Out of the three companies mention in this article Dell's efforts are the newest, but are already having a huge impact. In 2014 Dell saved $12 million and cut 6,700 metric tons of greenhouse gases. All three organizations also tell me that employees who are given telework options appear to be more engaged, productive, and happy at work.
Going forward it's hard to imagine flexible work (including telecommuting) not being a core strategy for organizations seeking to attract and retain top talent. In fact, I wrote about this two years ago in a post called 8 Indisputable Reasons For Why We Don't Need Offices. Does your company offer telecommuting options?

Jacob Morgan is a futurist, best-selling author and keynote speaker, learn more by visiting The Future Organization.com or check out his latest book,"The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders and Create a Competitive Organization," on Amazon.