Disasters' Impact on Telecommuters Can Be, Well, Disastrous

Ann All
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Telecommuting's Powerful Benefits

While it may not be for everyone, the future of telework appears bright.

Telecommuting proponents (including me) often tout telecommuting's ability to help companies keep workers on the job during natural disasters. Backers of the Telework Enhancement Act, for example, talked up the Office of Personnel Management's finding that limited teleworking during snowstorms that forced the federal government to shut down for four days in February saved taxpayers $30 million a day.


Yet, as a Computerworld story highlights, natural disasters can also prevent folks from working at home. Companies employ backup generators, fuel supplies and facilities to keep their data centers up and running during disasters. That's obviously not true for most telecommuters. (My not-so-sophisticated backup system involves packing up my laptop and making a trip to my in-laws, who live in another state 25 miles away and fortunately usually get their power restored long before we do at our house during outages.)


The story cites data from Eaton Corp., a power-management company that has been tracking power outages nationally since 2008 and compiles what it calls a "Blackout Tracker" based on information pulled from news stories and personal accounts of severe weather. According to Eaton spokesman Mike Decamp, there were an average of 236 power outages a month in the United States in 2009, but that number has grown to 273 a month through July of this year. Weather-related outages increased from about 77 a month in 2009 to 99 a month this year, with other outages caused by aging power infrastructures and other factors.


Some telecommuters go to pretty heroic lengths to avoid work stoppages. The story relates the efforts of Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition, who keeps two batteries each for his laptop and his BlackBerry. He monitors forecasts and when a storm like Hurricane Earl threatens to hit, he makes sure the backups are charged. During an outage, as the batteries lose juice, Wilsker plugs a DC-to-AC power inverter into his car and uses it to recharge his laptop and cell phone. He maintains Internet service via his BlackBerry and tethers it to his laptop. And he has a battery-powered desk light and a wired telephone that operates off the line current, plus a Xantrex portable battery.


In the Washington, D.C., metro area, where the federal government hopes to increase the numbers of employees working regularly from home, there were multiple storm-related outages in July and two in August, during which from 98,000 to nearly 300,000 Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco) customers lost power. According to the Public Service Commission of Maryland, there have also been "complaints of frequent and apparently inexplicable outages occurring outside of storm events."


The American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research recently published a thorough piece on the benefits of telecommuting as well as challenges associated with it.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Sep 5, 2010 5:17 AM Kate Lister Kate Lister  says:

It's a shame it always seems to take a disaster to wake people up to the need for trained teleworkforce.We (the Telework Research Network) have recently completed a study that shows that a company could save $1,100,000 if they allowed 100 workers to work at home just half the time.Conducted independently but released as a whitepaper titled 'Workshifting:Bottom Line Benefits' (sponsored by Citrix Online), the study quantifies the business, individual, and societal impact that regular telecommuting could have on the nation, and for small to mid-size companies.Nationwide, the impact would exceed $645 billion.

Businesses with 100 teleworkers would annually:

- Increase productivity by $575,000 by getting more work done with the same number of people

- Save $304,000 in real estate, electricity, and related costs

- Save $113,000 in absenteeism related costs

- Save $76,000 in employee turnover

- Improve continuity of operations

- Avoid environmental sanctions, city access fees, etc.

- Improve work life balance and better address the needs of families, parents, and senior caregivers.

- Avoid the brain drain' effect of retiring boomers by allowing them to work flexibly

- Be able to recruit and retain the best people

- Better address the needs of disabled workers, rural residents, and military families

Visit teleworkresearchnetwork.com/research to download a copy of the whitepaper.

More than 30% of U.S.workers say they'd take a pay cut for the opportunity to work at home, and 80% of all workers say they want to telecommute.Yet less than 2% of U.S.employees work from home the majority of the time (not including the self-employed), although at least 40% hold jobs that are compatible with telework.

The Telework Research Network has synthesized over 250 case studies, scholarly reviews, research papers, books, and other documents on telecommuting and related topics.The company has interviewed the nation's largest and smallest virtual employers and their employees, corporate executives, telework advocates and naysayers, top researchers, leaders of successful telework advocacy programs in both the public and private sector, and venture capitalists who have invested in the remote work model.

Using the latest Census data, and assumptions from dozens of government and private sector sources, they company developed a model to quantify the economic, environmental, and societal potential on telecommuting for every, city, county, Congressional District, and state in the nation. The model has been used by company and community leaders throughout the U.S.and Canada to quantify the extent to which telecommuting can reduce greenhouse gases and petroleum usage, save money, improve work-life balance, increase employee loyalty and turnover, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and reduce highway congestion and traffic accidents.It's available free on the web along with a model that allows companies and communities to quantify their own potential telecommuting savings.Custom calculations, based on over two dozen variables and 60 parameters, are also available to evaluate unique community and company situations

Kate Lister, principal investigator, and Tom Harnish, senior scientist at the Telework Research Network are authors of a popular press book, 'Undress For Success-The Naked Truth About Working At Home' (Wiley 2009). Reply

Sep 5, 2010 5:17 AM Kate Lister Kate Lister  says:
The book has won the praise of top telework and worklife advocates including WorldatWork, the Canadian Telework Association, the Sloan Foundation.

The Telework Research Network research has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and dozens of other publications.More about telecommuting, the pros and cons, who's doing it, and other resources for companies, individuals and researchers is available a TeleworkResearchNetwork.com.


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