Telecommuting goes agile as employees unplug

John Halamka is busy. As CIO of CareGroup Health System in Boston, he's responsible for making sure four Boston-area hospitals' critical IT systems are up and running. In addition, he's helping lead the charge to set national standards to enable interoperable healthcare systems.

Halamka finds the time for rock- and ice climbing, however, thanks to wireless devices that let him stay connected with work while doing the things he loves. "I receive 600 e-mails per day and use [my] BlackBerry to answer e-mail as I'm walking between meetings and in the moments that otherwise are unoccupied in my day," he says. "Also, I use a BlackBerry on nights, weekends and vacations to enable me to serve my customers while also engaging in my avocations: rock- and ice climbing."

Indeed, thanks to his BlackBerry, Halamka was able to combine work and play last summer, staying on top of discussions about national data standards while scaling the rocky side of Mt. Conness in Yosemite National Park.

Halamka doesn't work from a home office so he probably is not considered a telecommuter, but he's one of a growing number of so-called "agile workers," teleworkers who get work done outside an office setting by using wireless devices such as BlackBerries, cell phones and other handhelds.

Work doesn't require a desk

"Agile work does not need to be performed at a desk," says Jane Anderson, director of the Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education in Minneapolis. "Employees can now seamlessly work away from the traditional office cubicles and communicate by e-mails, read or report, research, send memos, hold discussions, make or take phone calls, text-message, discuss decisions, problem-solve, and produce results faster -- all without face-to-face contact."

Business tasks remain the same, but the way they are accomplished is changing, Anderson says. "Work is less about location and increasingly about accessibility," she adds.

The move to "agile work," though less obvious than the shift to telecommuting, could have a number of effects on organizations, from IT security to managing agile workers. Some hurdles may develop, but agile work is expanding rapidly and promises organizations the same benefits as telecommuting: increased employee productivity and higher employee retention.

With the expansion in agile work, the traditional definition of a telecommuter -- an employee who works typical business hours from a home office -- is becoming outdated quickly, as physical boundaries on how work gets done are lifted Just a small percentage of organizations have official telecommuting programs in place, however. A recent survey by The Dieringer Research Group for he Scottsdale, Ariz., human resources organization WorldatWork found that just 8% of an estimated 149 million U.S. workers say they are allowed to telecommute. At the same time, however, the amount of work done remotely is increasing. The same study, which surveyed 1,001 working adults last fall, found that the number of teleworkers (employed and self-employed) working remotely at least one day per month grew 10% last year, from 26.1 million in 2005 to 28.7 million in 2006.

There are a number of reasons behind the fast growth in agile work, including the availability of economical, high-speed broadband and wireless access -- which makes it less expensive and more productive to work remotely -- as well as an effort by employers to provide employees with the flexibility to achieve work-life balance, experts say.

"Progressive employers view work as not a place you go, but something you do," says Marcia Rhodes, spokesperson for WorldatWork

CareGroup's Halamka agrees. He's not the only one in his organization taking advantage of the flexibility of wireless communication. At Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess, for example, Halamka provides support for 500 BlackBerries. "Senior leadership, operational directors and service people are equipped for instant e-mail communications," he says. "The most significant reason for using BlackBerries is to enhance responsiveness and communication. There is some element of productivity enhancement."

The impact of supporting agile workers on the network infrastructure is minimal because the organization is equipped to support wireless work already, Halamka says. Like CareGroup, most organizations probably are set up to handle agile workers, so the true impact of an increasingly agile team is hard to gauge, experts say.

Agile work and telecommuting

Frank Douma, assistant director of the state and local policy program at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, notes that unlike telecommuting, many organizations might not even realize that the shift to agile work is happening.

"The way agile work is starting to appear is -- as opposed to teleworkers, who follow the same work schedule and work routines as they would in an office, except they're at home -- an agile worker works at the time they want, from the place most convenient for them," says Douma, who is in the middle of a telework study with the Midwest Institute's Anderson. "Agile work is an incremental change and folks might not even know it's happening to them, so trying to catch a before and after picture is hard to do."

One indication that agile work is catching on is the growing number of organizations that are equipping employees with wireless devices.

"Two things of concern with mobility are the network and security issues," says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition in Washington, D.C. "A couple of years ago, everybody went out and bought their own BlackBerries and PDAs. The companies now are providing the equipment, so they can tell people how to use the devices and give them guidelines."

At the same time, most organizations don't recognize yet that agile work is actually telework, a form of telecommuting. It's just becoming part of how we do business, Wilsker says. "When I speak to groups, I ask people, 'How many of you telework?' and in a group of about 30 or 40 people, maybe four people raise their hands," he says. "Then I say, 'How many people in the morning before you go to office, in the evening when you get home, over the weekend, or when you travel, from an airplane, an airport or a hotel, access your corporate e-mail and other corporate folders and files?' and all these hands go up."

"Mobile technology is giving us more to work with and making it easier to get work done," Wilsker says. "Whatever you call it, more people are doing it."

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