Nearly 40 percent of Americans could work from home, at least part-time, and twice that many say they would if given the opportunity, according to surveys compiled on Telework Research Network. The advocacy group shows that if employees with telework-compatible jobs stayed home one day a week, their companies could save $6,500 annually, per employee. So why aren't more companies making the transition to "work-shifting?" Brett Caine, president of Citrix Online, the $360 million, Santa Barbara (Calif.)-based company behind remote access sites GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, has some answers and advice for small business owners. He spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Karen E. Klein: This is National Telework Week, when government and private employers are encouraged to allow eligible employees to work from home at least one day. There are societal benefits to telecommuting—including savings on gasoline and greenhouse emissions—but what are the benefits for employers?
Brett Caine: They get increased productivity, reduced office space, and lower turnover and absenteeism. One study showed that teleworkers work one hour longer, on average, every day.
So why isn't this practice being adopted more widely, especially in small businesses?
I think it's about experience and confidence around your workforce, the tasks you're asking people to do, and the question: "If they're not in the office, are they really doing their jobs?"
For small businesses, those challenges are particularly acute because they have [fewer] resources and less flexibility. If they hire someone who wants to work outside the office a couple days a week, the other people are questioning: "What are they really doing? Are they working as hard as I am?"
So it's lack of trust and jealousy?
I guess that's just human nature.
Why should small business owners get interested in this idea?
As the leader of a small company, your biggest expense is turnover and retraining. If you have someone who's trained and knowledgeable and the only thing keeping them from work is a physical barrier, isn't it worth subscribing to some services or providing access to video and instant messaging? There are lots of free—or subscription quality services you can try for free—to see how comfortable you are with bringing down the barriers of time and distance.
Your business found ways around those obstacles. What have you done?
We've got one-third of our workforce doing what we call "work shifting," which means they can work at home, in our offices, or at any of our facilities around the world. We set up work shifting as a privilege, not a right, and those employees that have the benefit really, really value it.
What benefits has your company seen?
We've improved employee retention. And I'm able to encourage our leaders to hire the best talent, regardless of where they're located around the world.
We have just moved into a new campus and because of work shifting, we were able to put 10 percent fewer seats in. That's in spite of adding a few hundred employees last year and our further plans to expand. We'll save $2 million as a result.
How does the work shifting policy work?
Some employees never come to the office. It depends on their role and what they want to do. They do online meetings [and] use instant messaging, videoconference, and phone calls.
If you're going to be in the office more than 60 percent of the work week, we'll allocate a dedicated space for you to have a desk to put your pictures on. Otherwise, when you come to the office, you choose an open desk in what we call our hotel space. There are computers where you can log in with your own credentials, access all your e-mail, your calendar, and your files, so you don't even have to carry a laptop.
With so many companies providing smartphones to their workforce, isn't home-based work happening already?
Some access to e-mail or calendars through mobile devices does help. But where companies get more broad-based benefits is when they formalize a work-shifting policy and outline the rules of engagement around people [who] work part-time or full-time outside of the office.
What guidelines do you suggest for small companies?
The onus should be placed on the work shifters to communicate to the broader workforce where they are and what they are doing. When they do that, and they make themselves accessible, it lowers everyone's stress threshold. It eliminates resistance organizationally and enables trust.
With the bad weather this winter, it would seem like having the option and the technology to work remotely would be almost mandatory.
Workforce-and-business continuity is a huge issue. It's so important to plan for a disruption, whether it's a fire, an earthquake, weather, a transit strike, or God forbid, a terrorist attack. Especially when it comes to small companies, the ones that prepare for these things are the ones that are able to survive them.