Is Your Facility Ready for the Fast Lane of Telecommuting?
Is Your Facility Ready for the Fast Lane of Telecommuting?
Picture yourself sitting in your car on the way to work. Highway construction hasn’t kept pace with the growing population, so travel during rush hour is always congested and slow. Now a minor “fender bender” has completely stopped traffic. Even though you left for the office 45 minutes before you were to report for work, you will now be late—again. You arrive at the office feeling stressed and frustrated, and the workday is just beginning!
Does this sound familiar? If you are an average employee who works 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, and you spend 30 minutes per day driving to work and another 30 minutes driving home, by the end of the year, you will spend 250 hours in the car. This is the equivalent of 31 workdays.
You find yourself exclaiming, “There MUST be a better way!”
Perhaps there is. It’s called telecommuting, and it’s gaining in popularity.
What is telecommuting? There are a number of definitions of the term, but generally speaking, it is the process of employees performing their usual work functions in a setting other than the traditional workplace. It usually implies the home office setting, although other settings such as satellite offices may be used. Use of computers and telecommunications equipment is implied but is not necessarily required.
How do you know if telecommuting is a good idea for your facility? What tools can help in the decision process and successful implementation of a telecommuting program? This basic primer may help you make these crucial decisions.
The greatest benefit of a well-managed telecommuting program is that it can save your facility considerable resources in both direct and indirect costs. Studies have shown cost savings ranging from 13 percent to 40 percent per employee.1 If one employee telecommutes just two days per week, the employer may save $12,000 per year.2
Direct savings are primarily those associated with the low employee turnover rate seen with telecommuters. Across all industries and all company sizes, telecommuters report greater job satisfaction than their counterparts who do not telecommute. Telecommuters change jobs less frequently. They miss fewer workdays than their counterparts, and their performance ratings are generally higher than those who do not telecommute. In summary, telecommuters tend to be high achievers who are loyal to the organization.
Because telecommuters remain on the job and generally out-perform their counterparts, the employer can reduce lost revenues due to vacant positions. The cost of interim staffing is avoided. The costs of recruiting, training and retaining new employees are reduced. Management staff time, which would otherwise be spent performing new-hire functions, can be better spent in other needed areas.
Telecommuting programs can help increase the labor pool size by allowing access to long-distance staff. Especially in areas where specialty expertise is needed but is in short supply, a telecommuting program can fill in the gaps. For example, if your facility is in a small, rural mid-western town and there are no local medical transcriptionists (MTs) to fill a vacancy, a telecommuting program can allow the flexibility of employing an MT across the state or across the country.
Telecommuting can help reduce the need for the facility to obtain additional real estate for an expanding operation or can promote improved allocation of the current physical space. Indirect costs related to maintenance, utilities and insurance on unused space can be significantly reduced.
Implementation of a telecommuting program may result in improved employee computer skills, especially in those cases where a computer is relied upon. Because telecommuters are often self-motivated, they may take steps on their own to improve their skills. At times, however, a formal training program may be required. Even though this results in a short-term expenditure, the long-term benefit of having computer literate employees can make up for the cost.
In a telecommuting program, the role of managers becomes one of “virtual leader” and allows the opportunity for improved leadership and communication skills. Because face-to-face contact is limited in a telecommuting situation, the virtual leader can no longer rely on body language cues. Instead, he/she must possess superb verbal and written communication skills so that instructions, deadlines and assistance with problem solving can be accomplished over the phone, by e-mail or teleconferencing.
Added benefits include potential decreases in health care coverage costs because telecommuters report less stress and miss fewer workdays due to sickness. Corporate culture and corporate history are also maintained because telecommuters tend to remain with the organization.
Employees who participate in a telecommuting program also report benefits. Key among these is an improvement in their overall quality of life. Having no daily commute greatly reduces stress, which results in improved morale. Telecommuters consistently report that they begin and end their workdays with less stress than their counterparts.
Because telecommuters generally work at home or in a small group, they have greater control over their work processes and report greater job satisfaction than their non-telecommuting counterparts.
Telecommuting employees realize a direct decrease in transportation costs, meals and clothing associated with work. Telecommuting employees may also realize tax benefits by purchasing equipment/supplies and by using portions of their homes for offices.
However, as with any system, there are downsides to telecommuting.
As with any new program, the facility may incur start-up costs when it implements a telecommuting program. These costs may include training, policy and procedure review and revision, job description review and revision, and capital equipment purchases.
Management staff must be comfortable with the concept of telecommuting. They must have strong communication skills and the ability to coach/lead by MBO (management by objectives).
Data confidentiality and security measures must be strong and in strict compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and other regulations. An ongoing employee-training program that emphasizes confidentiality and security must be in place. (This issue warrants separate consideration outside the scope of this article.)
Senior management and the governing board must be supportive of the telecommuting concept because, as with any new system, some unplanned problems may arise. These may require further investigation or financial resources that were not originally allocated to the project.
Across all industries, employees report that the greatest disadvantage of a telecommuting program is the feeling of isolation and being “left out” of the workplace mainstream. They may feel they have been passed over for choice work assignments or promotions because “out of sight, out of mind.”
Some telecommuters find that they cannot adjust to the home work environment or they are disappointed with the perceived freedoms of telecommuting. They find that they need the interaction of a traditional workplace setting to thrive.
Over time, some telecommuters become unable to permanently allocate a portion of their living space for work. Family or housing situations may change, which makes it impossible for the telecommuter to continue to allocate a portion of the home environment for workspace.
Making a Telecommuting Program Work
Key to making a telecommuting program work are the identification of jobs that can be successfully translated into a telecommuting position and the identification of staff who are appropriate candidates.
In general, jobs that require data review/entry/analysis are well suited to a telecommuting position. In health information management (HIM), these include such functions as coding, transcription and release of information when significant portions of the record are computerized. Positions that require face-to-face interaction with clients or interaction with material in the traditional workplace are not well suited for a telecommuting position. These positions would include those that require filing loose materials or pulling and filing paper records.
Overall, the best telecommuters are employees who:
- Are highly motivated
- Are self-starters
- Work well with minimal supervision
- Are well organized
- Are effective time managers
- Can prioritize work activities
- Understand the job function/tasks well
- Have historically demonstrated high productivity
- Understand computer hardware and software and can perform basic problem solving
- Want to work in the home environment
- Have a home environment that can accommodate home office needs.
- Have developed sound strategies to minimize home distractions
In other words, these are the star performers in the department.
As a leader, you must undertake an honest assessment of your skills and weaknesses and take appropriate action where needed in order for a telecommuting program to be successful. You must understand the job of the telecommuter and how it is integrated with other positions within the department and total organization. Also, prepare for any changes that telecommuting will cause to the infrastructure. For example, how will this change affect support staff? Will more be needed? Are staff members currently performing tasks that are not listed in their job descriptions? Review all policies and procedures and revise as needed to reflect changes that a telecommuting program will bring. Review all job descriptions and revise as needed to reflect performance standards that are objective and measurable. Design and implement a mandatory training program for telecommuters and the workers who remain in-house.
Handling Common Issues
Being prepared to deal with common issues that occur with a telecommuting program is key to overcoming them successfully. Some of the common issues seen and ways to overcome them include:
- Telecommuters feeling left out/passed over. Use the telecommunications system to include them in activities. For example, when a birthday celebration occurs in the department, use conference calling to have telecommuters join in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Use e-mail to keep telecommuters abreast of day-to-day activities within the department. Appoint one of them to sit on an employee committee.
- In-house staff feeling “dumped on.” Assess workflow and make job description changes as appropriate. Has a particular clerical function been performed by a staff member who now telecommutes? If so, who will now have to perform that function in the office? Is the telecommuter producing paperwork that he/she previously distributed but now has to be distributed by someone else? If so, is there an alternative method?
- In-house staff feeling unappreciated. Mentor/coach in-house staff to improve their work skills so they may eventually be considered for telecommuting if the position allows. For staff whose positions do not allow telecommuting, look for ways to enrich their functions.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)/Workers’ Compensation/safety issues in the home office. The same rules apply to home workers as to office workers. Consider including a clause in the telecommuting agreement that allows, with adequate prior notice, on-site inspections of the home workspace.
- Ensure that telecommuting does not become synonymous with “electronic sweat shop.” A transition to the home workplace should never include a reduction of salary and benefits. If the method of compensation changes (for example, coders paid by number of cases processed or MTs paid by lines produced), it must be equitable with in-house staff.
- Have a plan to terminate the telecommuting program if it is no longer an asset to the organization. Where will the telecommuters physically be placed upon his/her return? Will new or different equipment be required? How will the staff members be re-integrated?
What Is the Future?
Telecommuting trends across all industries show a projected growth rate of approximately 20 percent through at least the end of 2000.3 Telecommuting in the HIM arena seems poised to flourish as we continue to move toward a computerized patient record. *
- Langhoff, June. (1996). It’s Time to Telecommute. http://www.gohome.com/Features/199610-feature .html. (1996)
- No author. Telecommuting Resources.
Wanda Bartschat is the owner of Verbatim Medical Transcription, Chesapeake, VA, which maintains a telecommuter workforce.