Updated March 25 at 12:28am

Telecommuting key to staff retention

By Rebecca Keister
PBN Staff Writer

Jay Hogue is far from the only working parent to find himself in a predicament when faced with an unexpected need to stay home from the office and care for his 18-month-old child when she falls ill.

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Telecommuting key to staff retention


Jay Hogue is far from the only working parent to find himself in a predicament when faced with an unexpected need to stay home from the office and care for his 18-month-old child when she falls ill.

The design director at Project Evolution, a Providence-based, Web-development company, is, however, one of the lucky working parents whose company has in place telecommuting policies that allows him to take care of both work and family responsibilities.

“If I need to stay home, or my wife can’t stay home, I can and still be somewhat productive,” Hogue said. “I can stay in communication, check in with my team, [and] have a conference call. All those tools help you work from anywhere.”

Telecommuting – the practice of working offsite by remote computer or telephone – once the standard only for freelance and contract workers – is growing in popularity and finding a place within general business practices and retention plans as a workplace-flexibility tool that allows employees to better manage a work-life balance and employers to help them meet those needs.

Wrike, a project-management software company based in Campbell, Calif., last spring released a survey that showed 83 percent of respondents reported they work remotely for at least part of their day and that 89 percent of respondents say they consider the ability to telecommute one of their three main job perks.

Telework Research Network, a consulting and research organization based in Carlsbad, Calif., that advocates for workplace flexibility, reports there was a 4.5 percent growth in “telework” for both for-profit and nonprofit companies from 2010 to 2011.

Sixty-six percent of the Wrike survey respondents reported they believe their office might become fully virtual within five years.

The network estimates that 20 million to 30 million Americans work from home at least one day per week.

“It doesn’t work for all organizations or positions, but I think it does for a lot,” said Cindy Butler, founder and director of Butler & Associates, a human resources consulting firm in Jamestown and legislative director for the Society for Human Resource Management. “[The belief] is that flexibility promotes retention, engagement, recruitment – all those things. Telecommuting is a big piece of that.”

Project Evolution later this month will be one of six Rhode Island businesses and organizations honored with a local Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility.

The national awards are part of When Work Works, a research-based partnership between the Society for Human Resource Management and Families and Work Institute that works to highlight how flexible workplaces produce productive employees and positive business results.

Hogue said four of Project Evolution’s 13 employees work remotely full time, including two developers who are based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Atlanta. The company currently is in the hiring process for two more developers and is talking to candidates in Connecticut and Pittsburgh, Pa.

One of the firm’s highest-level executives lives in West Hartford, Conn., and works in the Providence office once per week.

“But he handles most of the day-to-day business, operations and sales off-site,” Hogue said. “At least once a month we see [off-site] employees face to face. The two who are furthest away, we set up with once per year a whole week and work on special projects and close that out with the holiday party.”

Butler advises that that sort of arrangement, where there is pre-determined face-to-face time can work better than having telecommuting employees who never work in the office.

“I think it’s hard if you are always remote,” she said. “It’s much more difficult to stay connected to the department or organization.”

Kara DiCamillo, public relations director for 6 Square, a design and communications firm in Newport, is often on the road for work, traveling to meet clients and to attend trade shows.

She regularly visits New York City to meet there with editors.

“I’m constantly on the move so working remotely works for me,” DiCamillo said. “We have found the key is communication. We are all accountable for our work and have been successful since our company opened in 2004 with our current business model.”

But DiCamillo said she needs in-office time as well to catch up on projects she has with co-workers and to meet with company President Kyle Reichman. The two schedule those times but also will meet for coffee or lunch to discuss clients and updates.

The company also hires interns who almost exclusively telecommute, mostly due to the busy schedule of college students. The interns do accompany the staff on client meetings and have in-person update meetings.

“Telecommuting works for them because they can work in their school library during classes, at a coffee shop, or wherever it is that they are most comfortable,” DiCamillo said. “The result is that our interns are happy but they also learn to keep deadlines, handle tasks professionally and responsibly, all while learning to work independently as well as with a team.”

Hogue said that for his company telecommuting is a necessity to attract and retain the highly specialized Web developers his clients need.

The Wrike survey reported that in order to be able to telecommute, 54 percent of respondents would give up employer-paid cellphone plans, 31 percent would accept a reduction in paid vacation time and 25 percent would accept a salary reduction.

Crossroads Rhode Island, a Providence nonprofit that provides emergency needs, shelter, and other services to the state’s homeless population, allows telecommuting on a case-by-case basis. Crossroads is also receiving a Sloan award this month.

Some employees, said human resources manager Amy Deshaies, work from home a couple times per week and others do so occasionally.

Though there is no formal policy in place, managers are responsible for monitoring an individual employee’s productivity.

“Telecommuting has been very effective,” Deshaies said. “Our employees do see the telecommuting and flexible-workplace arrangements in general as a benefit. An organization needs to have support of upper management in order to have a successful flexible work arrangement.”

In some cases, telecommuting also provides a backup plan for workers who may be too ill to come into the office or who have some other unforeseen event keeping them at home.

FM Global, an international commercial and industrial property insurance firm based in Johnston, requires its employees to take their company laptop home each night so that if they cannot come into work they still can actually work.

That practice is in place also to prevent the spread of colds and the flu to other employees.

“It’s becoming more and more of a business strategy,” Butler said. “So many employers reported during Hurricane Sandy that [companies] that had these policies and technology in place were able to continue business even with a national disaster.” •


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