By Suzanne Ross

Telecommuting was once touted as the silver bullet designed to fix everything from executive burnout and low employee morale to air pollution. In reality though, very few organizations have achieved a great deal of success through telecommuting.

One law firm’s experience, however, has been quite different. An Australia-based legal practice with international offices has had a successful remote workforce solution in place for about six years now, enabling a team of senior word processing operators to work full time from home. (This firm requested it not be identified by name.) While the system hasn’t been without its headaches, it has seen productivity gains of up to 70 percent in some cases; it has enabled the firm to retain qualified, highly experienced staff; and it has provided a superior after-hours service to the firm’s partners and clients.

What’s the recipe for success?
What were the critical success factors for this firm, and why have they succeeded where others have failed? The prime reasons are:

  • Implementing technology that provides completely seamless network access.
  • Selecting employees with the right attitude to make it work.
  • Proving to management that “out of sight, out of mind,” does not result in decreased productivity. In fact, it’s quite the reverse.

At the time of the original implementation, the firm had a network of Macintosh desktops (later replaced by PCs) supported by UNIX back-end processing systems for document and practice management. Dial-in access was direct to Shiva Corporation’s LanRovers, and all applications available on-site were equally available off-site, unlike some remote solutions that provide limited access to a select range of applications, primarily e-mail.

The dictation and transcription system installed was a Lanier Digital Dictation system. This combination of seamless access to both the LAN/WAN and the dictation system provided a powerful platform for true remote working, and particularly for word processing.

With digital dictation, jobs are managed centrally, but can also be dictated directly to a particular operator, using either a Lanier handset or a digital telephone. This proved extremely beneficial for the firm’s commercial lawyers, who worked with clients in different time zones, and traveled frequently. Using a digital telephone from any of the firm’s offices, or from anywhere in the world, an on-call remote operator could be telephoned and advised that an urgent job was pending. A lawyer would then assign it to the operator. Once transcribed, the work printed directly to a printer in the lawyer’s office, be it Sydney or Shanghai. Alternatively, if the lawyer was traveling, the document would be sent by e-mail, or a document reference would be e-mailed for retrieval via the document management system.

Overcoming initial hurdles
According to the firm’s IT manager, the technology was actually the easy part. The major hurdle was overcoming initial management resistance to the project. After all, how could the lawyers and managers be confident that staff was genuinely working and not simply playing with the kids or, worse, lounging around watching Oprah?

To alleviate this resistance, and put things in perspective, a benchmark had to be established. Using the Lanier system, it was possible to track the operators’ productivity. Since results were already being collated on a weekly basis for review by HR, this was not seen as an imposition.

A pilot program was then established with a number of proficient operators who would work on a separate floor in the office and use remote dial-in facilities instead of network connections to simulate a home environment. Three months prior to the pilot, an average sampling of transcription was taken to provide a benchmark. This figure was then compared with transcription hours recorded during the pilot to determine productivity fluctuations. The results of the pilot astounded all concerned, with two operators achieving productivity increases of around 50 percent over the on-site operators, and another, a phenomenal 70 percent.

The pilot also enabled IT staff to monitor and assess problems on-site where they were easier to diagnose and resolve. Initially, the level of technical support did not change. Being a high availability site, support was already available 24/7, and with the operators trained in the resolution of common problems before going live, resolving issues proved no more difficult than supporting other remote users.

Taking it to the streets
The vagaries of the telecommunications networks across the country meant that what worked in the office would not necessarily work once the operator was at home. As the firm’s IT manager puts it, “We had a host of issues with dial-up connections, particularly with operators located out in the sticks, where the exchanges weren’t always that reliable. The result was that most of the operators have now been upgraded to ISDN.” But, he continued, “at least after the pilot, we were dealing with savvy users who were able to explain precisely what was going wrong. There’s nothing more frustrating for techs, unable to remote-control a PC, than dealing with someone who still can’t tell whether the modem is plugged in or the monitor is switched on.”

As the system matured, additional tech resources were required to support the growing off-site workforce, particularly during major hardware and software rollouts. With the workforce now so geographically dispersed and so heavily relied upon by the legal teams, it was essential to do careful logistical planning to avoid unnecessary disruptions. Depending on the nature of the upgrades, this often involved tech staff traveling after hours to install equipment and configure software, or alternatively, recalling small groups of operators to the office for short periods of time.

The human factor
Once the technical difficulties were largely behind them, some of the more human aspects of the project were questioned. Social isolation is widely believed to be a major drawback for telecommuters, and those concerned with occupational health and safety issues questioned whether certain personalities were more suited to off-site work than others. From this firm’s experience, telecommuting is definitely best suited to those who are self-disciplined and highly self-reliant, which is fairly typical of anyone who runs a small business or works from home.

The operators were all motivated by a desire to spend less time in the office; they were all 100 percent behind the project; and they had a vested interest in making it work. Some had small children, some lived a long way from the office, and one simply preferred the company of her Great Danes to that of her colleagues. As a result, it was not social isolation that proved to be an issue, but rather concerns about keeping skill levels current and fears of falling behind the on-site operators. These issues were subsequently addressed by the introduction of regular training programs, conducted in the office, which also gave the operators a chance to socialize and catch up with colleagues.

One very salient point to emerge from this project was that telecommuting should not be considered an opportunity to combine childcare and work. Both research and experience suggest that it places an unrealistic burden on women to meet the demands of work while attending to children. The mothers on this program found that they still required childcare if they were working during normal business hours. However, most chose to work after hours when small children were asleep, and for most, the reduction in travel time still meant more family time.

In short, telecommuting provided genuine benefits for both the firm and its employees. The firm achieved tangible increases in productivity, retained qualified, long-term employees, and will shortly reduce its expensive central business district (CBD) real-estate requirements. The success of the project can be summed up succinctly by a survey conducted 18 months after the project went live, in which the operators were asked if they would consider returning to work in the office full time. The answer? A resounding “No.”