Building loyalty outside the office

Tuesday Feb 1st 2000 by Ann Howe
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When properly implemented and supported, telecommuting programs can benefit companies as well as employees.

Private Client Technology group of Merrill Lynch & Co.

The company: The Private Client Technology (PCT) group of Merrill Lynch, located in Somerset, N.J., has 2,100 employees, 90% of whom are IT professionals. The group is responsible for all Web activity for Merrill Lynch branches. Merrill Lynch is one of the world's leading financial management and advisory companies, with offices in 44 countries and total client assets exceeding $1.5 trillion.

The problem: Merrill Lynch had three reasons to consider telecommuting: the need to comply with the federal Clean Air Act; employees who wanted tools to balance personal and professional responsibilities; and the desire to be known as the IT employer of choice.

The solution: Create a flexible work program, including telecommuting, enabling employees to work comfortably and effectively from home.

Janice Miholics
"Telecommuters consistently are high achievers and among our best performers," says Janice Miholics, Merrill Lynch. They are, say Merrill Lynch surveys, 15% more productive than nontelecommuters.

At Merrill Lynch & Co. there is no such thing as downtime. With the responsibility of managing assets worth more than $1.5 trillion in 900 offices in 44 countries, employees need to work in harmony, accessing information systems that are reliable, secure and always available.

So why would a company with so much at stake offer IT professionals the opportunity to telecommute? Doesn't its systems managers, programmers and the like need to be on-site to ensure security, reliability and availability? Not anymore. From cellular telephones to laptops equipped with proprietary software, as long as users have connectivity, their location doesn't matter to Merrill Lynch. The job can be done as well from home as it can from the office, and sometimes even better.

Telecommuting improves employee morale, reduces turnover, and decreases absenteeism, not to mention the money and time it saves. Factoring such things as reduced absenteeism and lower retention costs, a company can save about $10,000 per employee through telecommuting, according to a study conducted last summer at the behest of AT&T and the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC).

There are three main reasons companies offer telecommuting. The Clean Air Act of 1990 mandates that certain metropolitan areas such as New York City reduce vehicular traffic. Employees are clamoring for telecommuting to balance work with family issues, including elder care, day care, doctor's appointments and parent-teacher meetings. And human resources departments have argued successfully that telecommuting is a retention tool because employees consider it a major benefit.

As telecommuting is proven to reduce turnover and absenteeism, more firms will offer the option of working at home, maintains ITAC President John Edwards. And this option will extend to IT professionals, according to Edwards, because they are particularly well-suited for telecommuting. IT professionals have the knowledge, background, training, and gut understanding to install software, connect a printer to a laptop, or click through a series of "Help" screens to find an online solution to a problem.

How technology works - or doesn't - is not a mystery to today's IT professionals. They can use e-mail, write software code, create business presentations or access video-based technology to "attend" meetings while working a home, to name a few options.

Assessing the situation

Because the benefits are a clear differentiator, the telecommuting trend is growing, says Gail Martin, executive director of ITAC. Today's employee sees value in balancing work and family, and telecommuting provides one means of achieving that goal.

Ask the members of Merrill Lynch's Private Client Technology (PCT) group, based in Somerset, N.J., and most will heartily agree. PCT has 2,100 employees, 90% of whom are IT professionals. The group is responsible for all Web activity for Merrill Lynch branches.

Through employee surveys, Merrill Lynch has learned that PCT telecommuters are 15% more productive than their commuting counterparts and average three fewer sick days per year. Also, the company has reduced turnover by 6% and improved morale 30%.

The reasons behind these statistics are simple. Telecommuters waste less time stuck in traffic, individuals with family issues are better able to balance those concerns, and sick days are reduced because telecommuters don't have to wage the exhausting traffic battle.

Telecommuting opportunities are open to all levels of IT workers at Merrill Lynch, including senior management. Take Jill Mullen, first vice president, Strategic Technology Initiatives. A direct report to the company's chief technology officer, Mullen spends one day a week at home, limiting the long journey between her New York office and her Connecticut home.

Mullen manages a staff of 30 and is responsible for running the corporate strategy group and determining the future direction of Merrill Lynch's technology infrastructure. To ensure the staff knows her location, Mullen leaves each Wednesday as a work-at-home day where she catches up on e-mail and attends to any child care issues. Through telephones, e-mail and fax, Mullen is connected to her office. Telecommuting was a benefit that Mullen says made her choose Merrill Lynch as an employer.

Lessons learned about telecommuting

Make any program voluntary, because not everyone wants to telecommute.

Create a "no surprises" process that outlines the responsibilities for managers and employees, such as meeting deadlines and milestones and keeping the lines of communication open.

Outline the program requirements and make sure they are followed by all telecommuters. These should include building a business case, developing a schedule for on-site and off-site work, articulating business objectives, and agreeing upon deliverables.

Educate employees on everything from when to call the help desk to how to deal with family issues.

Provide the telecommuter with the technology and the tools to be successful: a hotline for technical support, equipment that enables a smooth transition from the office to the home, and a peer network for exchanging ideas and sharing information.

Trial and error

Still, not everyone is interested in working from home and taking on the responsibility of maintaining their own systems. Some don't have the discipline or desire to work solo. For employers, this means tackling some tough issues. Figuring out who can and cannot telecommute and why requires careful planning and training. It also needs to be a joint effort between companies and their employees.

At Merrill Lynch, two forces pushed the company into telecommuting: the Clean Air Act of 1990, and a 1995 survey showing that employees wanted such programs. The company opted to address turnover and the inability to attract employees with Internet skills by taking the high ground; initiating a strategy that would make Merrill Lynch the employer of choice for IT professionals. The Private Technology Group became a prime target for a telecommuting pilot program.

The pilot's goals were to ensure consistency across the organization and to encourage a seamless transition between the home and the workplace. Merrill Lynch placed 36 of the PCT group's employees in the pilot. Although it proved unsuccessful, the company learned that an effective telecommuting program requires more than a paper plan.

Half the employees left the program because they weren't interested in telecommuting. This action taught Merrill Lynch its first lesson--telecommuting needs to be voluntary. The responsibility of keeping home systems up and running frustrated some employees. Merrill Lynch subsequently determined that it needed to provide training on such issues as how to set up a home office, calling technical support and keeping in contact with one's staff. Along with a knowledgeable technical support crew, it also needed a standard computing platform, because different systems, laptops and desktops have different needs.

Doing it right

After the disastrous pilot, Merrill Lynch hired Bill Gordon, a telecommuting guru, who helped them define and develop a clear strategy.

Define a business case. Employees need to develop a business case for a telecommuting request. To be successful, it must include managerial input, the nature of the project, how many days the telecommuter expects to work from home, and how the employee will communicate. Personal characteristics gleaned from an employee's performance evaluation--self-starter, excellent communicator, capable of working with little or no supervision--can be used to make the business case.

Merrill Lynch wants an employee to provide dedicated office space, ideally a site physically separated from the remainder of the home. Doing so gives the employee privacy, provides security for the office, and enables employees to "walk away" from work at the end of the day. Telecommuters supply the furnishings, and the company supplies the hardware, software and telephone lines.

Provide business training. Telecommuting employees are given two hours of training on how to set up a home office.

Provide manager training. Managers are required to train on how to effectively run a virtual group and keep an open communication. The training has been so successful that Merrill Lynch created an internal network to let managers share information about overseeing telecommuters.

Create a simulation lab. The simulation lab, a small room with windows that represents a home office, is used to give an employee the opportunity to personally experience working in isolation. During the six days of simulation lab training, the telecommuter undergoes a technical orientation. Employees learn how to call-in for technical support, plug in the various elements of their home office, and access the network from home. This is key, as employees are responsible for keeping the systems in running order. If a problem can't be solved remotely, a technician is dispatched to the home.

Provide on-going training and support. Merrill Lynch conducts surveys and focus groups among telecommuters to continuously gather information on how the program is working and how it can be improved. The result is that the company is holding on to critical skills and is recognized by employees as family-friendly.

Another view

Another major firm, Dun & Bradstreet Inc., allows telecommuting but with less openness than Merrill Lynch. The leading provider of business-to-business credit, receivables management and decision-support services, Dun & Bradstreet employs 10,000 people worldwide, including 300 software developers working at the company's Parsippany, N.J., offices.

In 1994, Dun & Bradstreet launched a telecommuting pilot. Advances in technology such as ISDN lines made it possible for systems analysts, mainframe programmers and similar professionals to work from home and still stay connected.

Business trends and how they relate to telecommuting

Programs that enhance work and family balance are more popular among employers...

Workplaces are evolving into nonhierarchical, knowledge-based team environments...

Like Merrill Lynch, Dun & Bradstreet employees must prove that telecommuting will be in the best interest of the company and its customers. The business case must include information on how the change will impact coworkers and customers. The employee also must be willing to come to work for business or production meetings and any other matters requiring an on-site presence.

Unlike Merrill Lynch, however, telecommuting isn't open to all Dun & Bradstreet employees. Trainees aren't eligible, for example, but senior employees are. Yet even those senior employees must have performance reviews that reflect a high level of achievement and a need for little, if any, supervision.

"We monitor people's performance on a regular basis, and if there is a decline, we might pull them right back into the office," says Karen Brophy, assistant vice president of human resources for Dun & Bradstreet. By monitoring an employee's performance and ensuring that projects are completed on deadline, Brophy says it is easy to debunk such telecommuting myths as, "'How do I know if they are really working (from home)?'"

Focusing on results

Merrill Lynch also tracks its telecommuters. "We measure and manage by results," says Janice Miholics, vice president, alternative work arrangements, at Merrill Lynch. "We monitor a telecommuter's performance approval (promotion activity, salary, bonus, etc.) vs. those who don't telecommuteand telecommuters consistently are high achievers and among our best performers." They are, according to Merrill Lynch surveys, 15% more productive than nontelecommuters.

Take Helene Garcia, another vice president for Merrill Lynch who telecommutes two days per week. Garcia is the 2000 manager for 300-plus applications, supporting a variety of functions including HR, finance, corporate services, and the office of general counsel.

Garcia's job is such that she doesn't physically sit in the same location (or in some cases, the same state) with the people whom she services on a day-to-day basis. She forwards her work telephone to her home office, so when a client calls, Garcia's location is transparent. At home, she is able to function fully whether she is answering e-mail, working with a client online, reviewing a presentation, or discussing strategy.

As a manager, Garcia communicates her schedule to her direct reports so there is no confusion as to when she is at home, on the road or on-site. Her team is constantly in transit, making them telecommuters as well. Open communication is maintained with one-on-one time while in the office and with regular contact via e-mail, telephone, beeper, and fax. Staff and clients alike appreciate that Garcia is accessible, no matter where she is.

"Through the flexibility of telecommuting, all of us were afforded the opportunity to balance our work and home lives even when the pressure was on," Garcia says.

The result? Garcia has seen firsthand the increased productivity and enhanced customer satisfaction that can come through telecommuting. "The ability to be in one location for part of the day and then finish the day at my home office affords not only flexibility, but a better use of valuable time," says Garcia.

In the end, telecommuting benefits everyone involved. "Geography has been rendered irrelevant," says Merrill Lynch's Miholics. "We are now able to hold on to critical skill sets and our people are happy." //

Ann Howe (annhowe1@aol.com) is a freelance writer living in Amherst, N.H.

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