Friday, July 25, 2008

Making telework work

As gasoline costs and other expenses rise, more companies and their employees are finding payoffs in telecommuting

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
‘‘This idea was really about helping my employees have more time with their families,” says David Cornblatt, CEO of OLS Trading, which previously leased office space in Gaithersburg and which he now runs as a virtual business out of his Germantown home or his sport utility vehicle.
Three years ago, the eight employees at OLS Trading worked in a 20,000-square-foot Gaithersburg office and warehouse, liquidating businesses’ fixtures, furniture and electronic equipment that usually wind up in landfills.

Then, CEO David Cornblatt figured that his company did not really need a brick-and-mortar office. Each employee, including himself, now works from home, saving employees a total of 50,000 commuting miles annually and his company about $250,000 in lease payments, utilities and other costs.

Today, OLS Trading has grown to 15 employees with $6 million in revenues last year. Employees used to commute to Gaithersburg from as far as Lanham. Now they work as far away as Warrenton, Va., and the company also has virtual offices in Florida and other states. Not only does OLS save clients such as Bethesda concessionaire HMSHost Corp. and Baltimore accounting firm KPMG thousands of dollars in liquidation costs, it even gets them some money back.

As gasoline and other energy costs continue to rise through the roof, Cornblatt has taken his company further along than most others in this telework trend that is growing more popular among companies in Maryland and nationwide. From small businesses such as OLS to larger ones such as Towson toolmaker Black & Decker Corp., employers are turning to telecommuting and other alternatives to attract and retain workers fed up with long commutes, save costs in a tighter economy and reduce traffic congestion.

Along with rising gasoline, utility and real estate costs, technological advances have helped propel the telework trend. Better computers, videoconferencing and webcam capabilities, personal digital assistants and faster broadband connections let employees accomplish at home most anything they can at the office. Some companies give teleworkers allowances for their broadband connections and the latest technological advance.

More family time

‘‘This idea was really about helping my employees have more time with their families,” said Cornblatt, 45, who now offices out of his Germantown home or his GMC Denali.

He said he did not like the distractions of the office and ‘‘meetings about how we were going to have meetings.” He also wanted to work early — from 4:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. — and then go for a 20-mile bike ride.

‘‘As I sat back and thought, I realized that our employees saw me more than their spouses and children,” Cornblatt said. ‘‘I wanted to give our employees what I wanted for myself — flexibility to be with family and work at the time that they are most productive.”

Chuck Wilsker, president, CEO and co-founder of the Telework Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization incorporated in Maryland, said he has not heard of any other companies in this area make such a drastic conversion as OLS has. An Alexandria, Va., insurance company reduced its office space from 12,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet two years ago after implementing a telecommuting program in which about 50 percent of employees participate, he said.

‘‘They are saving about $400,000 a year in lease payments,” Wilsker said.

Whereas OLS once paid for a warehouse, it has since established an asset evaluation and sales implementation process that utilizes methods such as an online bidding and simultaneous multi-location sales far in advance of a move to liquidate equipment and actually gain a return for clients. That enables the company to do without a warehouse and go virtual while still growing revenue.

‘‘We remove the middle men to sell assets directly to consumers,” Cornblatt said.

Telecommuting upin region, nation

Telecommuting has grown to the point that most advocates now refer to the practice as telework, to focus more on the overall workforce benefits than just the commute. Wilsker and Nicholas Ramfos, director of Commuter Connections, a program of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that helps employers with telecommuting programs, carpooling and other ways that get vehicles off highways, said they are getting significantly more inquiries from companies about starting telework programs.

Wilsker said he has received more inquiries in the past few months than during any period in the last several years. That includes the aftermaths of the 2001 jetliner attacks and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when companies sought ways to continue operating in the midst of disasters.

‘‘Nothing has come close to this” level of interest, said Wilsker, who usually works out of his Rockville home. The coalition’s other employees also telecommute most days.

The group maintains a Washington office to have a presence on Capitol Hill.

‘‘But I only go there about twice a month,” Wilsker said. ‘‘And I usually try to go when it’s not rush hour.”

In the Greater Washington region, which includes Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick counties, some 456,000 employees telecommuted at least one day a week in 2007, some 42.5 percent more than in 2004, according to a survey of workers released by Commuter Connections. The percentage of employees in the region who telework rose to 19 percent from 13 percent in 2004.

Moreover, 40 percent who work from home said their employers offered a formal telework program last year, up from 32 percent in 2004. That increase indicates greater employer acceptance of formal programs, Ramfos said.

Nationwide, about 13 million workers telecommuted at least once a week in 2007, a 16 percent leap from 2004, according to Stamford, Conn., information technology research and advisory company Gartner. That is expected to reach about 14 million next year.

At Bethesda defense and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp., telecommuting is one part of several programs offered employees to deal with rising gas prices and other cost-of-living increases, said Keith Mordoff, a spokesman for the company’s information systems and global services unit in Gaithersburg. Those include flexible work hours, alternate work schedules and commuter assistance, which encourages employees to use mass transit by taking pretax salary deductions.

The Frederick office that Lockheed established about two years ago is known as a ‘‘telecommute” facility that was opened especially to reduce the commute of employees who live nearby, Mordoff said.

‘‘It reduces costs and commuting time for those employees,” he said. ‘‘It helps us attract and retain talented employees by providing employees additional options related to balancing their work and home life.”

More satisfaction,less sick time

Besides helping strengthen employee recruitment and retention, telework can reduce absenteeism, sick leave and late arrivals; increase employee productivity and satisfaction; and expand access to skilled workers, including those with disabilities who need to work from home, advocates say.

Some say telecommuters are more likely to goof off at home, away from managers’ direct supervision. But that can be alleviated through electronic monitoring programs or making sure teleworkers meet the same quota as before, executives said.

Cornblatt said his company manages employees through conference calls three times a week and an occasional face-to-face meeting with local employees as those who live in Florida and other states are on a conference call. Establishing milestones with incentives for meeting goals is important, he said.

‘‘We place incentives based on how we do for our clients, as they are what makes us succeed,” Cornblatt said.

Since doing without a brick office, efficiency at OLS has increased ‘‘as we learned to empower each other. We have more efficient meetings,” Cornblatt said. ‘‘It’s like a family. The average person has been here nine years.”

Calverton research and consulting firm Macro International began its formal telework program in 2003, although some employees previously teleworked on an informal basis for years. The company has more teleworkers in its Bethesda office because that area is a transportation management district requiring employers to help ease traffic congestion and parking is expensive, according to a case study report by Commuter Connections.

The Bethesda division initiated telework informally to retain technology employees in the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, but ‘‘business continuity has come to play a larger role,” the report says.

The Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative in Hughesville set up six call-center employees who telework with laptops and other equipment, said Tom Dennison, a spokesman for the 500-employee nonprofit. The co-op launched the telework initiative in 2006 after finding no co-ops on the East Coast with such a program.

‘‘We’re exploring ways to expand the program,” Dennison said, adding that telework is viewed as an added employee benefit more than a cost-savings initiative.

The cost-saving potential for some employers can be significant, however. At Sun Microsystems in Santa Clara, Calif., where most employees — about 19,000 worldwide — work in shared workspaces or at home, savings have totaled about $387 million in office space and utility costs in the past six years, said Kaitlin Haar, a company spokeswoman.

Sun employees saved a total of 2.5 million gallons of fuel in fiscal 2007, and an estimated 29,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide were prevented from entering the atmosphere through the program, Haar said.

Resources

Telework Coalition, nonprofit telework advocacy organization that provides information and coordinates programs and activities. 202-266-0046, www.telcoa.org.

Telework Consortium, nonprofit group that advises public and private employers on telework issues. 703-731-7889, www.teleworkconsortium.org.

Commuter Connections, program of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that helps employers start or expand telecommuting programs. Also coordinates carpooling and other efforts. 202-962-3313, www.mwcog.org⁄commuter2.

Baltimore Metropolitan Council, Baltimore area organization similar to Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. 410-732-9575, www.baltometro.org.

Maryland Teleworking Partnership with Employers, a program of the state Department of Transportation that also involves the Washington and Baltimore regional councils. Offers free professional telework consulting services to Maryland employers. 888-713-1414, www.mdot.state.md.us.

Montgomery County Commuter Services Section. Aids employers in Montgomery County that want to start or expand telework programs. 301-770-7665, www.montgomerycountymd.gov.

U.S. General Services Administration telework program. 202-219-1443, www.gsa.gov⁄teleworknow.

Maryland telework facilities

These facilities, operated by federal government agencies, are for workers who need fax machines, meeting rooms, videoconferencing and other options to supplement a home office:

Bowie State University Telecommuting Center, Thurgood Marshall Library, 14000 Jericho Park Road, Bowie 20715. 301-860-4939.

Frederick Telework Center, 7340 Executive Way, Suite M, Frederick 21704. 301-698-2700.

Hagerstown Telework Center, 14 North Potomac St., Suite 200, Hagerstown 21740. 301-745-5600.

Waldorf Telework Center, 128 Smallwood Village Shopping Center, Waldorf 20602. 301-934-7628 or 301-893-6705.

Prince Frederick Telework Center, Fox Run Professional Building, 205 Steeple Chase Drive, Suite 305, Prince Frederick 20678. 301-934-7628 or 410-286-2607.

Laurel Lakes Telework Center, 13962 Baltimore Blvd., Laurel 20707. 301-934-7628 or 301-470-0560.

Baltimore Telework Center, Maryland National Guard Armory, 29th Division St., Baltimore 21202. 410-702-9615.