March 14, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 9:49 am

Staying Home | Gas prices have CT employees looking for workplace alternatives

Kai Loundon, agency services representative for Foodshare, Inc., works at home. As a telecommuter, he splits his time between the office and his house, saving on traveling costs.

The surge in gas prices toward $4 per gallon has spiked the interest of Connecticut businesses in telecommuting, working employees from home to save on time and money.

Employers that have already taken advantage of the state's free telecommuting services report happier workers with flexible hours, real estate savings and a renewed commitment to sustainability.

Since gas price began rising drastically at the end of January, Telecommute Connecticut has seen a dramatic rise in the number of companies reaching out for help setting up telecommuting services, said program manager Jean Taylor Stimolo. Telecommute Connecticut is a nonprofit funded through the state Department of Transportation providing free services to businesses, such as developing servers for remote work stations, programs for telecommuting employees and human resources training systems.

"It has to do with reducing congestion on the highways and improving air quality," Taylor Stimolo said.

It also has to do with money.

In 2008 — when gas topped $4 per gallon — a Telecommute Connecticut survey showed that 50 percent of companies had employees asking for workplace alternatives, such as working remotely from home. Now with gas approaching a similar cost and projected to reach $5 per gallon, businesses are seeing a similar response.

"Gas prices are starting to spur interest," said Taylor Stimolo. "It is something that employers and employees now realize, that telecommuting can really reduce the gas cost."

Bloomfield nonprofit Foodshare Inc. is expanding its telecommute program this month by 50 percent or more, depending on employee interest.

"For as many staff as it works for, we want to have it as a benefit," said Christine O'Rouke, Foodshare executive vice president and chief operating officer. "For the staff that does it, it makes a big difference not to commute every day."

In August, Foodshare launched a telecommute pilot program using six of its 44 employees. With those six employees telecommuting one day per week and in office the other four, the program found that more than 300 roundtrip commuting miles were saved each week.

The program doesn't work for everyone, O'Rouke said. Some employees, such as truck drivers, can't work from home. As the program expands, the company must coordinate schedules with telecommuting employees so that an entire department isn't absent from the workplace on one particular day.

While the program requires extra work, the employee benefits are worth it. The employee save on commute costs, aren't stressed from traffic and have higher job satisfaction, O'Rouke said. Since Foodshare also strives to be an environmentally friendly company — its facilities are certified by the U.S. Green Building Council — so reducing car emissions helps toward that goal.

Stamford mail-sorting equipment maker Pitney Bowes wants 10-15 percent of its 33,000 global employees telecommuting by 2012 under its agile work program. The program allows the company to save on office space while increasing employee work-life balance and further committing to the environment.

"It aligns with our sustainable goals," said Jim Ryan, Pitney Bowes manager for workplace strategy and major projects.

Pitney ended a pilot telecommuting program of 140 employees in January 2010 and decided on a worldwide expansion of the agile work system based on the early success. An average of 77 commuting miles was saved per employee per week in the pilot program, and the company expects similar results on a global scale.

Under the flexible work program, employees could also choose which Fairfield County facility they wanted to work from, in addition to telecommuting from home. With offices in Shelton, Stamford and Danbury, employees could pick the one closest to their residences, reducing their commute.

"There has been a lot of positive reaction to just that aspect of the program," Ryan said.

Initially, both the companies and employee had an out-of-sight, out-of-mind fear about productivity and manager recognition of the work goals, Ryan said. However, the results were quite the opposite; and managers, employees and co-workers planned their workweeks better around everyone's schedules. The end result was better collaboration.

"We anticipate if we do see $5 per gallon of gas that people will be lining up to participate in the program," Ryan said.

North Haven financial services provider The Pension Service, Inc. started offering telecommuting programs 10 years ago, slowly rolling the program out with the help of Telecommute Connecticut to ensure no work quality suffered in the process.

In addition to happier employees, Pension Service used the technology from Telecommute Connecticut to set up four remote offices throughout the state, furthering its client service, said Michele Henry, Pension Service executive vice president.

Telecommuting has enabled 30 percent of the company's 85 employees to work more flexible schedules. Two employees even moved out of the state to Florida and Maryland, and Pension Service kept them on full-time.

"Normally, when someone moves away like that, you lose them; but we still get to use them," Henry said. "To find qualified, experienced people is hard."

Pension Service still needs employees in the office to handle client issues, especially for the workers who are telecommuting that day. But the company is expanding the program further so some employees can telecommute full-time.

"To just stay home and avoid the traffic, that is time put to good use," Henry said. "I just filled up my car this morning; the price of gas is horrible now."

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