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Mobile workers increasingly common - and not just on snow days
By Anna Marie Kukec | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/9/2009 12:01 AM

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For the last three years, IT Project Manager Jodi Alempijevic has been a mobile worker for Motorola Inc. - mobile in the sense of working on various projects from home, or from satellite offices or at the company's Schaumburg headquarters.

She estimates it has saved her about 55 hours a month commuting, as well as $1,000 a month on gasoline, extra clothes, dry cleaning bills and eating out. It's even lowered her cholesterol about 70 points, she says.

"Another co-worker who lives near me went into the office (Tuesday) and because of the snow her commute was two hours," Alempijevic said. "She had an in-person meeting in Schaumburg. Well, that would have been my commute. Instead, I saved about three to four hours of commuting and I didn't skip a beat."

Chicagoan Alempijevic is part of a growing culture among companies with work-at-home policies that embrace new technologies and attitudes.

As crowded and icy road conditions caused many people to seek at-home alternatives to rush-hour travel Tuesday, experts said that telecommuters - virtual or mobile workers - are becoming more common with the help of the Internet and newer technologies that make it easier, more efficient and more affordable.

Companies also are developing various types of policies for short-term, long-term or even permanent roles for the off-site worker.

More than two-thirds - 69 percent - of executives polled in 2008 said it is common for their companies' employees to work off-site. Also 82 percent of managers said they expect the number of employees who work remotely to increase in the next five years, according to a survey by OfficeTeam, a division of Robert Half International. The survey is based on telephone interviews with 150 senior executives from the largest companies nationwide.

Companies that offer some type of work-at-home policy allow employees to become more productive and with less stress, said Sara Knox of Hoffman Estates, a Robert Half International regional vice president.

"Even with this snowstorm, by the time people get to work, they're so stressed out that it takes them longer to get back in the groove," said Knox. "The bad weather can make people upset about the driving conditions and their lost time from work."

Companies also are finding that they can have people all over and accomplish the same goals, said Anne Edmunds, Manpower regional director in Chicago.

"Some can even save on their bricks-and-mortar overhead," said Edmunds.

Working at home, or at another location, could be for one day because of bad weather like this week, or longer-term due to a medical recovery. In many cases, it could be a permanent arrangement, depending on the type of work, experts said.

Aon Consulting's 2009 Benefits and Talent Survey found that more organizations are turning to virtual worker programs to reduce people and infrastructure costs, Chad Thompson, Aon senior consultant, said while working in Seattle although he's based in Detroit and travels widely.

The survey showed organizations are reducing operating costs by adapting to the changing work styles of employees. Thirty-one percent of responding organizations are including virtual work forces, also known as remote work force and telework programs. About 44 percent plan to add additional remote workers in the coming year. In addition to real estate and tax incentive savings, respondents also cited several other benefits to hosting a remote work force, including increased productivity and performance; increased employee engagement; decreased turnover and job withdrawal; and increased social responsibility, Thompson said.

"This shows that working remotely is growing and isn't going away," he said.

The Society for Human Resource Management's 2009 Employee Benefits Survey found that 45 percent of surveyed employers offer telecommuting on an ad hoc basis as a benefit. About 34 percent offer telecommuting on a part-time basis and 19 percent offer telecommuting on a full-time basis as a benefit.

Such flexibility in work-at-home programs are being used in recruiting and retaining employees. While larger companies led the way with such policies or programs, smaller companies are jumping on board, said Terry Perry, principal of San Francisco-based Pink Slip, a benefits, health, wellness and outplacement service. She's also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's Total Rewards Expert Panel.

"This allows smaller businesses, who couldn't compete otherwise, to allow workers the flexibility to get the job done," Perry said.

But working away from the mother ship isn't always the best course, Perry added.

"There is a bit of lonesomeness associated with working at home," she said. "You'll miss those brief moments with friends and relationships with co-workers don't develop."

That interaction is important on many jobs, such as retail, health care and education, experts said.

That loss of interaction is a major component to working, said Brad Karsh, president of Chicago-based JobBound.com.

"Flexibility is good, but you lose that face time," Karsh said about face-to-face meetings. "There's also that perception that you're missing out of the informal chatter of the day. If there's an impromptu meeting, they may not call and include you."