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November 16, 1999
How one company shifted half its workforce to telecommuting status
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WDS Company calls it the WDS Virtual Office or Teleworking Program, and it has been an integral part of the company since its launch in 1995. It now involves fully half of WDSs 250 employees (a few full time, the majority occasionally).

Steps You Can Use to Create a Successful Telecommuting Program

Before 1991, Washington Dental Service (WDS) was typical of many insurance companies. Its decades-old culture included a top down management style, paternalism, and, sometimes, strained labor relations. Overall, it was comfortable, if not all that exciting.

That changed when Jim Garrison got in the drivers seat. With the enthusiasm of a newly appointed CEO, Garrison meant to change the way the company did business, and he meant to do it quickly. One sentence sums up Garrisons position, then and now: If you treat employees like adults, they respond like adults.

Those words convey much more than an empty philosophy. They reflect a complete shift in a company's way of thinking, from doing work to getting results. A key component of this shift was the decision to develop a telecommuting program. Dubbed the WDS Virtual Office or Teleworking Program, it has been an integral part of WDS since its launch in 1995. It now involves fully half of WDSs 250 employees (a few full time, the majority occasionally).

Both Teleworkers, Company Benefit

Matthew Fairfax, director of human resources at WDS, sees several benefits to the program. Of course, reducing the numbers commuting to the office each day is a benefit, as is efficiency in using available workspace. The greatest benefit, according to Fairfax, is in employee morale and productivity. Our turnover rate is less than 10 percent, he says, and the program is a recruitment tool as well. Both are important benefits in a tight labor market.

Regular employee feedback, informally and through an annual survey, shows that even more employees want to telework.

Where to Begin

There is no argument that WDS has created a successful telework arrangement. How did they do it? Fairfax recommends that companies considering such a move follow three steps.

  1. Create a task force to study the issue. Its important to involve people from all levels of the organization, says Fairfax. By doing so, you not only gain many valuable perspectives, you also have the opportunity to get the buy-in of some long-term employees who may be more difficult to convince. Of course, if there is a labor union involved, consider including a representative on the task force.
  2. Research, research, research! We took quite a while in putting this together, Fairfax reports. We spent six to eight months researching it, looking at the implications, and designing it. This is time well spent. You can look into how other companies, similar in size or industry to yours, have developed their policies. Be sure to explore implications of any labor union contracts you might have, as WDS did.
  3. Communicate and coach. Fairfax reports that one difficulty WDS faced was educating some managers in a different approach to overseeing employees; one that can accommodate teleworkers. If I cant see them working, how do I know they are? some managers worried. We needed to get them to shift from task mode into coaching mode, Fairfax explains, in which you show people what results are desired, and let them work. He admits that they should have given this area more consideration in their early planning and recommends others do so from the beginning.

The WDS Policy

WDSs teleworking policy, developed by its task force, specifically describes how to telework at the company. It does not state which individual jobs are suited to telework; that decision is up to individual employees and their teams. An employee who wants to telework, and believes his job (and his abilities) are well suited to it, is free to discuss it with his team leader. If the team leader agrees, the discussion goes on to the rest of the team. Training about the practicalities is required for all team members because all are affected. The employee who will be off-site receives additional training, then completes a telework agreement, also developed by the task force.

Part of encouraging the shift in thinking required to get more employees away from the traditional nine-to-five office routine, according to Fairfax, is helping employees to get over their fears of technology. To do that, WDS placed a PC on every desk and encourages the ownership and use of PCs in employees homes. WDS implemented a program whereby employees can purchase a PC on an interest-free loan repayable through payroll deductions. "If we can get employees computer-literate at home, they'll be more effective at work, whether that's at the office or at home," Fairfax emphasizes.

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