Since Nortel Networks started a teleworking programme for its employees a few years ago, 94% of the teleworkers have reported an increase in productivity of between 15% and 20%.
According to Alan Denbigh, director of the Teleworking Association, that figure mirrors a general trend. "Usually, there is an increase in productivity of between 10% and 30% when people start teleworking," he says.
The Labour Force Survey 2002 shows that about 1.9 million people in the UK do some form of teleworking on a regular basis. Denbigh says this figure represents a 65% growth over the past five years. The most common type of teleworker is someone who spends two or three days a week working from home and the other days in the office or attending meetings.
Teleworking is possible in pretty much any industry where employees are not required to be on site, or do not need to be face-to-face with customers on a regular basis. The Labour Force Survey reveals that managers and IT professionals are among the people most likely to telework. Ian McKeown, chief information officer at Nortel Networks, says his company's typical teleworker - there are 3,300 full-time and 9,000 part-time teleworkers among the company's 36,000 global workforce - is a senior executive, manager, sales professional, technical support person, software developer or trainer.
According to Caroline Jones, communications analyst at Gartner, the increased demand for teleworking has largely been driven by employees. "In the UK, the push has come from the workforce itself," she says.
Both Jones and Denbigh say a lot of companies have realised how powerful teleworking is as a recruitment and staff retention tool and cite this as their number one reason for introducing it.
But there are numerous other business benefits as well, an obvious one being the potential for lower real estate costs. McKeown says companies can enjoy reduced office space costs of up to 30%.
East Midland Electricity started offering teleworking as an option to employees as a way of reducing office space costs and because of car parking restrictions at its headquarters.
An ongoing report (available online, see URL below) into the benefits of the scheme reveals that the company expects to save about 10 square metres of office space and approximately £3,500 per teleworking employee over three years. This means that per 100 teleworking employees, East Midland Electricity expects to make savings of 1,000 square metres and £350,000 a year.
Workers based at home are often much more flexible about when they work, which is partly why it has become such an attractive option for call centre operators. Rather than working a strict nine-to-five day, call centre operators can work on a split-shift basis, covering peak-time demand.
The Automobile Association says enabling its employees to handle breakdown calls from home has resulted in a productivity improvement of up to 40%. "The quality rate for teleworking is incredibly high with callers," says Denise Raven, spokeswoman for the AA. "A lot of our teleworkers work split shifts, covering our busiest times, which are the early morning rush hour and evening rush hour. They can also be on call and available to start work within five minutes to help with unexpected demand."
Not only can homeworkers help out during busy periods at very short notice, they can stop work at shorter notice - ask an office-based employee to provide emergency cover and they are not going to want to commute into work to sit at their desk for only an hour or two.
Teleworking is very attractive for companies that need to provide a 24x7 service, which is partly why it is popular with technical support staff. It is also good for people who do a lot of business with places such as North America. "I can do conference calls to the States at night without it being a problem," says McKeown.
Although tangible cost savings such as reduced real estate costs can be substantial, McKeown says the less tangible benefits - employee satisfaction and productivity - are equally important and can save significant sums of money. "There is an improved employee retention rate for teleworkers of 20% at Nortel Networks," he says. "They are 11% more satisfied with work than non-teleworkers, 40% more motivated and have decreased levels of stress and absenteeism through sickness."
However, for teleworking to be successful, employees need to be able to work just as they would if they were in the office. They need to have access to the same company files, phone lists, e-mail and so on and that access needs to be reliable. That is the one thing companies must not overlook. "What I have on my home PC is exactly the same as what I have on my office PC," says McKeown. "It is all about having secure access between the home environment and your core network."
Security is the number one issue for teleworkers and equipment needs to be configured with all the firewalls, authentication tools, encryption and anti-virus software that protects office equipment. Where this can fall down is if people are using their own machines. Companies need to provide the IT equipment, set up in the standard company way, to ensure security is not compromised.
By standardising the home workers' IT kit, firms also make it much easier for IT departments to provide support. Equipment can then be automatically updated remotely with any new software and security tools being rolled out across the company.
Networks are much more reliable and robust these days and can be set up to ensure the homeworker is not at a disadvantage to the office worker. Technological advancement in areas such as broadband, ISDN and DSL also make it much easier for homeworkers, although access to broadband is still patchy outside the big cities. "The increased availability of broadband can only help and the UK is making progress in that direction," says Jones. "Also, BT is talking about providing a type of always-on ISDN for those customers who are unable to receive DSL."
Telephone lines can be configured so that a number is assigned to the person, rather than the physical telephone, so that number automatically follows them wherever they are.
As long as the IT infrastructure is right, for many teleworkers the real problem is the reduced social interaction, which is partly why many prefer to keep teleworking to only a few days a week.
East Midlands Electricity report: Sustainable Telework - Assessing and Optimising the Ecological and Social Benefits of Teleworking
The Teleworking Association