When Webster's dictionary first introduced the word "telecommute" in its dictionary some 35 years ago, defining it as working from home "by use of an electronic linkup with a central office," few people had a grasp of what this concept was, or how it would impact a 21st Century society.
Telecommuting has since become an integral part of American society. At last count more than 158,000 Connecticut employees worked remotely, an 86 percent increase over a five-year period while taking 60,000 cars per day off Connecticut roadways. Also, according to Telecommute Connecticut research, the interest in telecommuting continues to grow.
The value of telecommuting as a vital economic tool designed to keep businesses moving has grown beyond its initial intent of relieving highway congestion and lowering fuel consumption. Employers now recognize that telecommuting improves their bottom line through increased productivity, an expanded labor pool, reduced overhead costs and improved work-life balance which helps retain valuable employees. Telecommuting is also a vehicle to maintain business continuity.
Today, telecommuting is being utilized as a key component of continuity planning and a valuable resource as the world faces a new challenge in the form of the H1N1 influenza pandemic, a virus that could cause an American absenteeism rate as high as 40 percent, according to some economic experts.
A recent USA Today poll of 1,007 adults found that one in three people believe they or a family member will contract H1N1. The U.S. government is considering extending its leave policies for federal employees actively caring for family members who become ill with communicable diseases, including swine (H1N1) flu.
Many employers anticipate that large numbers of employees might need to stay home for extended periods, either due to personal illness or to care for a family member. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends "social distancing" during the upcoming flu season—the concept of working no less than six feet from a coworker. This work method may take on even greater dimensions if large numbers of workers can choose to increase their social distance by working from home.
Given the concerns surrounding this flu season, employers are being encouraged to establish workforce contingency plans that include methods for continuing critical functions during a crisis. In many contingency plans, the ability to telecommute is becoming a popular option.
According to the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA), 36 percent of Connecticut businesses surveyed presently have contingency plans in place or are developing one, with another 16 percent planning to do so in 2009-2010. This figure promises to rise as employers, especially small businesses, realize the need to keep their productivity levels up. CBIA estimates that if a pandemic strikes, smaller companies or those without contingency plans could be more at risk.
Companies can start preparing by:
Identifying which critical functions will need to be maintained (e.g., customer service, information technology and finance/payroll, etc.)
Setting up basic systems to back up these critical functions, including cross-training
Considering which employees might need to work remotely, at least temporarily
Developing plans which provide the capability for employees to work from home
As more U.S. companies look for solutions to anticipated problems threatening workflow during the upcoming influenza season, Connecticut businesses have free access to Telecommute Connecticut's technical assistance. Their professional consultant team helps launch telecommuting programs custom designed to meet specific business needs. Telecommute Connecticut is a free service sponsored by the state Department of Transportation, which offers a wide range of transportation services through its Connecticut Commuter Services program.
Jean Taylor Stimolo is program manager for Telecommute Connecticut.