Experts: Telework Might Hold Key to Pandemic Solution

By Heidi Russell Rafferty May 7, 2009

How would you react if some of your business facilities were at the epicenter of a pandemic?

Dimension Data of New York City, a $4.5 billion multinational IT consultancy, faced just that issue with the swine flu outbreak in Mexico City, where it has a 26-person office. But because the corporation has long been a proponent of telework, business continuity was a foregone conclusion, says Denise Messineo, senior vice president of human resources for Dimension Data Americas.

As it was, 90 percent of Dimension Data Mexico employees were already working from home. During the first week of May, when the outbreak was the global news topper, Dimension Data’s business went on as usual. But it wasn’t just because telework was already in place—it was also the result of “a high-performance corporate culture” that emphasizes “integrity and respect of the individual,” Messineo said. And so far, no one at the company has caught the bug, either.

“Our employees work very hard and are very devoted. We have no issues with people not doing their jobs, and it’s because of the flexibility they’re allowed,” she said, adding that she often has to scold people for working too hard.

Telework Actually Works

“They overcompensate,” Messineo said. “They value the ability to telecommute and show it by working.”

No question about it, telework has become a necessity for many businesses in the 21st century, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, with events like Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina and the avian flu in Southeastern Asia. All the more reason for companies to put telework policies in place now that the swine flu is here, HR and IT experts contend.

But are enough companies instituting the practice? The federal government is one barometer of its growing popularity: According to the Office of Personnel Management, 60 percent of federal agencies integrated telework in 2007. And yet only 7.6 percent of eligible employees took advantage of it.

So why isn’t the practice more widespread? Anecdotally, companies have shared with ORC Worldwide that they think productivity will plummet. (ORC Worldwide provides data and advice on workforce management issues.) Besides, they don’t want the expense of tech gadgets and IT security products, said Ann Brockhaus, ORC Worldwide’s senior occupational safety and health consultant. But companies are losing sight of a bigger picture, Brockhaus said.

“Compare the cost of being able to telework vs. not being able to meet customer needs,” Brockhaus said. “The cost of enabling employees to telework can be dwarfed by the cost of business lost.”

There’s a plethora of programs and applications that can monitor computer usage, such as Rescue Time, according to Chip Kohrman, founder of the Columbus, Ohio-based telework networking firm Telesaur. And Messineo notes that companies can just apply common sense HR practices to figure out if someone is goofing off at home.

“You will know quickly if you have someone working or not. Something is not going to happen, and you’ll know they were not doing their job,” she said. “You also know through the technology, like you’ll know if they’re available online. With our software [the company’s Unified Communications package], if a person is showing green and you ping them and they’re not getting back to you, then you know. But it’s all about trust.”

Putting Telework into Practice

The biggest mistake companies can make is to turn a blind eye to pandemics and other disasters, thinking operations will be immune, Kohrman said. Otherwise, should lightning strike, they may be forced to allow employees to telework. And then they’ll have a haphazard, unplanned and unsecured program, started with knee-jerk panic, he said.

That said, should you find yourself in that predicament, all isn’t lost. The first step is to ask employees who are informally working remotely about the tools they’ve been using. “Then there’s less friction with adoption, because you’re talking to people who will use the tools. And they may be using tools you don’t know about,” Kohrman said.

Then, go to a turnkey solution from a company that will help you set up an entire telework program, security bells and whistles included, he says. “There are companies like Officescape where you say, ‘Here’s our situation—we have this need, and we need to do it now.’ They can make suggestions and help people plug and play things,” Kohrman explained.

‘Essentials’ List

What are the basic tools to launch a teleworking program, regardless of pandemics? Here are the essentials, recommended by Messineo and Kohrman:

·Company laptops: For security purposes and to avoid viruses, issue one to every teleworker. You can equip it with Skype video cameras or buy models with embedded cameras like Lenovo Think Pad.

·Virtual Private Networks (VPNs): These are secure tunnels by which remote computers are connected to “the mother ship,” and through which data can safely pass. (Just type in the phrase on Google, and you’ll see a host of VPN products.)

·Shared document software: Small businesses should check out Googledocs, which allow geographically separated people to share information simultaneously. Google also has paid programs for larger operations. Other software includes gDoc, Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, LogMeIn, Drop Box and Syncplicity. Another, EtherPad, identifies each user by color so people can identify each other online when working on texts.

·Social networking sites: Because of proprietary information, avoid sites like Twitter but invest in similar programs for businesses such as Social Harbor.

Above all, make sure you “test and stress” your system before leaping into telework so you can address any connectivity issues beforehand, cautions Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange.

“We strongly recommend that if they can, they start their telework [plans] as early as possible so they can test their infrastructure to test their technology,” Auten told SHRM Online. “It’s about planning and making sure you have the infrastructure in place to support a remote environment,” she said.

Heidi Russell Rafferty is a freelance writer and editor in Kentucky. She can be reached at


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