Telecommuting still far from mainstream

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Computers, BlackBerries and personal digital assistants are making it easier for some companies to be flexible with schedules, allowing employees to work from home when necessary.
While few companies in Colorado Springs allow full-time telecommuting, many expect the practice to grow in popularity as gas prices near $3 a gallon – and show no signs of falling in the face of unrest in Iran and Venezuela, and required seasonal changes at the nation’s refineries.
“It costs more than just a dollar or two to come to work anymore,” said David Kast, a chief executive officer at Stockman, Cast Ryan & Co. “So we do allow people to work from home. We have one employee who works from home during our busy season – she comes into the office maybe once a week.”
Kast said the company’s policy is to be flexible with employees.
“People are coming into the office,” he said. “But, they like the idea they don’t have to. We have people who work for a half a day here, then work from home half a day. We also have people who need to work from home a day or two a week. We’re very flexible.”
That flexibility allows employees to decide where they want to complete their workloads, he said, and that leads to high employee satisfaction.
“The majority of our employees don’t telecommute on a regular basis,” he said. “But they always can take a day to work from home if they need it. It works out pretty good.”
Because of rising gas prices, Kast said he expects more employees to take advantage of the flexible policy.
“It would not surprise me,” he said. “We haven’t seen a big increase yet, but if gas prices continue to rise, we certainly will. Everything they need to work is available online. The technology makes it easy.”
Colorado Springs’ work force lags behind the rest of the nation, where 20 percent of employees telecommute. The number of people who telecommute has increased dramatically since 1990: more than 45.1 million people worked from home in 2005, according to the International Telework Association and Council.
A study by Challenger, Gray and Christmas shows that high gas prices could lead the way for more telecommuting – which could lower gas prices.
“A significant increase in telecommuting will eventually lower gas prices as fewer workers drive,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer for the global outplacement consultant group. “The average worker commutes 16 miles each way to work every day. That adds up to more than 8,000 miles per year, going to and from work.”
Challenger believes companies will soon be forced to help ease the financial burden of higher gas prices – or risk losing workers to jobs that are more flexible.
In Colorado Springs, few companies are bowing to the pressure of high gas prices. Both El Paso County and Colorado Springs city workers must report to the job. Neither government entity allows its workers to telecommute. Private companies, however, are proving to be more flexible.
Progressive Insurance has call centers and other employees in the Colorado Springs area. Michael O’Conner, spokesperson for the company, said the technology is not yet cost effective to allow call center workers to telecommute.
“Our strategy is to continue looking at call center telecommunications technology as it becomes available to us and make future telecommuting decisions based on our objective to handle all customer calls accurately, quickly and cost-effectively,” he said.
Other Progressive employees are allowed to telecommute – if the manager is “confident that the job can be effectively performed off-site,” he said.
“The decision to telecommute is made between the employee and his or her manager,” O’Conner said. “(The manager) must be confident that the alternative work site is conducive to getting the job done, that job performance metrics are clearly specified and that communications methods between the off-site employee and other Progressive people are adequate.”
While it doesn’t have any employees telecommuting full-time, PRACO Public Relations Advertising Co. provides a flexible work schedule for employees, said Ken Hunter.
“We always allow people to work from home if they need to,” he said. “If they have kids’ functions in the middle of the day, they can work from home before they go, and then after they come back. If they have the cable guy coming, sometimes people need to be at home for things. We encourage occasionally working from home.”
Some PRACO employees split time between Denver and Colorado Springs offices. Occasionally, those workers might spend a day or two at home. The company’s policy is to allow for flexible work time, but Hunter said PRACO does not allow full-time telecommuting.
Challenger said more employers reported increased interest in telecommuting after Hurricane Katrina, but a survey shows employers in Colorado have been slow to respond.
Only 1 percent of 499 respondents said companies were allowing more telecommuting, according to a survey by Business & Legal Reports.
“With the labor market getting tighter as a result of stronger job creation, employers may change their tune this summer,” Challenger said. “Now that the job market appears to be firing on all pistons, many workers are looking for good reasons to leave their current employers. Companies that want to attract and retain the best workers can definitely make a positive impression by helping them cope with higher prices at the pump.”
One industry must simply add higher fuel costs into its overhead: real estate brokers.
Harry Salzman of Salzman Real Estate said that despite widespread use of online realty sites and other new technology, clients still need to see the houses.
“We use whatever is available to better serve the client,” he said. “But there’s no question that people need to be shown homes. It’s just part of our expense. If you want to be in this field, you have to do it. You have to be out there.”
Salzman said people are becoming more knowledgeable about the real estate market, using Internet sites such as Realtor.com. And his company puts every house on its Web site, despite the higher cost.
“People are using the Internet to research the market before they move,” he said. “They are doing more themselves, so they feel more in control. You have to make use of the technology that’s available if you want to stay ahead.”
Salzman also finds himself looking at the two-inch screen of his personal digital assistant to keep in touch with clients while he’s away from the office. In fact, many of his company’s agents do not come into the office frequently – allowing them to work from home.
“You don’t have to use the office these days at all,” he said. “You can do it all from a PDA or a computer. But you do have to drive. There’s no question: it doesn’t matter what the price of gas is, you have to drive in this business.”
amy.gillentine@csbj.com