The Home Front

The Sept. 11 attacks put telecommuting on the front burner for some companies
Julie Gerdeman's employer drafted her into the ranks of its telecommuter workforce. The Sept. 11 attacks on the United States displaced the VP of account development in the corporate services group at American Express Co. and tens of thousands of other workers in New York from their regular offices. Many relocated temporarily to other buildings, but thousands more, including Gerdeman were forced to set up shop at home.

The financial-services company asked Gerdeman and 30 of her colleagues, who provide expense-management and corporate-relationship services for New York clients, to work from their homes. That way, their Wall Street offices could be used by other employees who lost their offices in the company's damaged headquarters building across the street from the World Trade Center.

"Within 48 hours after the attacks, I was back online, working from home with my laptop, doing E-mail, and accessing the databases I need," Gerdeman says. "It was seamless."

Luckily for Gerdeman and her team, American Express had a telecommuting program in place prior to Sept. 11. This helped everyone in the company make the transition logistically, technically, and emotionally. Though many companies have existing programs for telecommuters under normal circumstances, last month's tragedy was a wake-up call for all companies to recheck their business-contingency and disaster-recovery plans and re-examine how they could quickly shift dozens or even thousands of employees to home offices.

Terrorist attacks aren't the only thing that might suddenly keep large numbers of employees homebound. "There are many more common occurrences that could force people to telecommute--anything from hurricanes and earthquakes to the energy crisis in California," says Frank Bernhard, managing principal at Omni Consulting Group, a technology economic advisory firm.

Potential technical, logistical, training, support, and even emotional challenges are plentiful when deploying a telecommuting workforce on sudden notice. Logistical problems range from shipping computers to employees locked out of their usual offices to getting telecom companies that are swamped with emergency repairs to install broadband services or a second telephone line for dial-up modems in employees' homes.

Technical challenges abound. Users get frustrated because applications that work so effortlessly in their office LAN environments can be painfully slow when accessed from home. Companies need to round up IT staff to handle the installation of communication software and applications needed on each worker's system, train employees on how to use them, and troubleshoot hardware problems remotely. In some instances, legacy applications need to be Web-enabled and secured.

Security becomes paramount, especially because home users can be particularly vulnerable to hackers and other breaches. Then there's the added cost of purchasing or renting PCs and providing broadband connections--though high-bandwidth digital subscriber line or cable-modem links can actually be less expensive than sending a worker into a business office. "You can get broadband for $49.95 a month," Bernard says. "Yet the average office employee costs $68 a month for utilities, including heating and electricity."

The terrorist attacks displaced some 5,000 employees at American Express' company headquarters, forcing the company to relocate most of them to other offices in Manhattan and New Jersey. But about 800 employees now telecommute, although some of those workers had telecommuted at least occasionally before.

The biggest hurdle was getting new telecommuters set up with additional phone lines or broadband services. "In the best of times, it can be a challenge coordinating schedules so that individuals can be home when the technician arrives," says Ray DuBois, VP of New York business renewal, a new title for the former VP and relationship leader for services management at American Express. "The challenge is magnified since cable operators, DSL providers, and local telephone providers are managing very high workloads."

Verizon Communications Inc., which provides telephone services in New York, its surrounding suburbs, and nearby areas of New Jersey, says the average customer wait for DSL and other broadband services installations is 10 days in most parts of its service area. But a Verizon spokeswoman admits that the waiting time for such services in the New York area is longer, in part because of the damage to the company's facilities and lines from the World Trade Center collapse.

To help compensate for those waits, members of Gerdeman's team who didn't already have second phone lines in their homes relied on cell phones for voice, and home lines for data communications until telecom companies could service their homes. Gerdeman travels enough that she's familiar with remote-access work, making her transition to telecommuting easier.

However, members of her team who hadn't used remote-access software in the past had to be trained over the phone by American Express' IT staff. The company has assembled a team of about 200 IT staffers who are supporting the 5,000 displaced workers, including the telecommuters.

Training and support are key in the success of telecommuting workforces, whether work-at-home programs are permanent or makeshift for an emergency. Merrill Lynch & Co. has up to 1,500 employees telecommuting regularly. The World Trade Center attacks forced the investment banking and brokerage firm to relocate 9,000 employees from its nearby headquarters building. Hundreds of those employees now telecommute.

To get them working again quickly, Merrill Lynch provided technical training as well as guidance on effective ways to work remotely, although the amount of instruction was reduced to just the most important basics. The IT staff provided employees with training on remote access; the human-resources staff offered guidance on how to be productive from home. Merrill Lynch telecommuters typically receive up to a week's worth of technical training if they're not comfortable working remotely, says Janice Miholics, VP of global telework strategies. Training is still thorough enough to get employees working with confidence, she says, but more streamlined to get them up and running faster.

Merrill Lynch finds it useful to keep tabs on how telecommuters cope, particularly new telecommuters. The firm's HR group provides remote employees with questionnaires every 30 days to gauge how they feel about their "telework" situations. "We want to know how they've handled the relocation and if they're interested in going back into an office or continuing to work from home," Miholics says.

Merrill Lynch executives expect many of the company's displaced employees to continue to work from home occasionally or permanently after its headquarters reopens. "This is a godsend for people with long commutes," Miholics says.

For telecommuters--particularly those who are unexpectedly working remotely--keeping up productivity isn't the only problem. Emotional hurdles also can present a major challenge.

"Many home workers are surprised to find out how much more efficient they can be" when there's no water cooler to congregate around, says Fred Crandall, a partner at the Center for Workforce Effectiveness, a consulting firm that studies virtual office environments. But these new telecommuters can suddenly be stricken by loneliness. "Teams should try to meet via phone or in person at least once a week," he suggests.

Those issues are what American Express' Gerdeman tries to tackle. Her homebound team members rely more on frequent teleconferences to brainstorm and congregate, and they make more use of E-meetings, in which participants access PowerPoint presentations and other material online while talking to one another on the phone.

The subject of an upcoming E-meeting that Gerdeman has planned for her staff is about telecommuting. "We're going to discuss what it's like to be virtual," she says. "We don't want anyone to start feeling isolated."