Federal funds boost telework initiative

Consortium plans project highlighting benefits of working outside the office<@VM>Tax break proposals promote telework

Olivier Douliery The Telework Consortium's William Mularie and John Starke are helping to promote the benefits of working outside the office. Proponents often tout the social and environmental benefits telework, yet little attention has been drawn to one of its biggest payoffs: increased employee productivity.

Armed with $3.4 million in federal funds, the 3-month-old nonprofit Telework Consortium in Herndon, Va., will demonstrate the benefits of teleworking, or working outside the office.

With money from the 2002 appropriations bill for the Commerce, Justice and State departments, the group will demonstrate productivity increases made possible by teleworking, and work to increase residential broadband access to the Internet, which proponents say could spur a significant increase in teleworking.

Consortium members, including telecommunications firms, systems integrators and hardware and software vendors, are planning a demonstration lab where members can test telework hardware, software and work methods. The group also will launch several pilot projects to promote residential broadband service and measure productivity increases, said John Starke, a consultant to the consortium.

By doing so, the consortium hopes to help businesses and government agencies build solid cases for telework and for increased broadband access in their communities.

"The common problem holding back telework is the lack of face-to-face communication. We think one way to get over that is to have good-quality video, in more than just a tiny screen that's pretty choppy.
That requires a lot of two-way bandwidth," Starke said.

Consortium members say widespread broadband connectivity to the
Internet, or ultraband, can make high-speed, true-to-life desktop videoconferencing a reality between home and the office. Meetings with the boss would be as simple as gazing into a computer monitor and talking. Images would be smooth, and video and audio would run in sync, unlike lower-bandwidth transmissions.

The Telework Consortium is a unit of the Software Productivity Consortium, a nonprofit partnership of industry, government and academia working to advance software engineering. Telework Consortium members ? natural competitors ? are working together to meet goals that none would be able to accomplish alone, said William Mularie, chairman of the consortium's board of directors and former director of information technology at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"We want to be able to operate a rich video environment," Mularie said, where data can be delivered at speeds of 10 megabits to 100 megabits per second.

Ten megabits per second is 2,000 times faster than a 56K modem, said Joe Roitz, telework director for telecommunications giant AT&T Corp. of New York. AT&T is a consortium member.

Starke expects the consortium will establish partnerships with several broadband providers to lower the cost of broadband service. Spectrum Access Inc. of Dulles, Va., is one participating vendor.

Robinder Sachdev, executive vice president for corporate development, said residential broadband isn't widely available because it's too expensive. Service that can carry high-quality video costs about $250 a month, he said.

"We are looking to bring together a bunch of interested companies, a critical mass that would make the economics work. Maybe each partner revises its price points. We are willing to do that," he said.

Starke said, "We think that the cost will be at a level that most corporations will see the value in paying for this service for their employees, and in the very near future most people will be willing to pay for it themselves."

Telework proponents often tout the social and environmental benefits of working outside the office, such as more time for family and less traffic congestion and air pollution. Little attention, however, has been drawn to what proponents say is telework's most important benefit: increased employee productivity.

"The productivity message has not gotten out there. Telework is usually promoted as a work-life, family-balance benefit. Few firms have really realized the benefits of productivity [increases] from telework," Roitz said.

At AT&T, for example, teleworkers work an hour longer each day and are more efficient each hour, Roitz said. The company annually realizes $100 million in savings from teleworker productivity increases. In addition, AT&T saves $18 million a year in recruiting and worker retention costs and $25 million in real estate costs.

In 2000, 56 percent of AT&T managers worked at home once a month or more, and 27 percent worked at home once a week or more. Altogether, 35,000 of AT&T's 120,000 employees telework at least occasionally.

"This consortium will help businesspeople see the bottom-line benefits [of telecommuting] ? how it will help increase [worker] retention and profits, as opposed to the other pros of telecommuting [such as work-life balance]. When it comes down to it, that's what businesses' first concern will be," said Elyse Bauer, spokeswoman for Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., an advocate of telework and supporter of the Telework Consortium.

AT&T will support the consortium as it launches pilot programs. "We can look to our labs to help develop applications, and we can provide infrastructure: We can lay cable everywhere," Roitz said.

Roitz, who works full time from his home in Little Rock, Ark., regards widespread broadband access as the magic bullet that addressees both the technological barriers and the social organizational barriers to telework.

"TV-quality video would make our interview a lot more productive," he said. "If we can get to the point of rich communications, like face-to-face, that's going to do so much to advance the cause of telework."

Government systems integrator DynCorp of Reston, Va., plans to participate in a pilot program, said Peter Himmelberger, vice president and chief technology officer of DynCorp Systems & Solutions LLC and a member of the Telework Consortium board of directors.
Unlike other telework projects, which have been "sort of soft," the consortium is creating hard metrics to measure worker productivity, Himmelberger said.

"With 23,000 employees in 500 locations ? if the technical and business model proves valuable, it will be something a company like ours will be very interested in. It lends itself to the skills and technology we bring: wireless communications, IT support and services. Not only for our own use, but our customers will want to do this as well."

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.Although homeland defense, cybersecurity and appropriations bills demanded much of lawmakers' attention last fall, issues such as telework haven't been eliminated from their agendas.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced legislation Dec. 19 that would provide tax credits for employers and employees participating in telework programs. The Telework Advancement Act, S. 1856, would provide an annual $500 tax credit to employers for each worker participating in an employer-sponsored telework program.

The credit would increase to $1,000 for employees covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and for employees of small businesses.

Kerry's bill would also allow employers or employees to deduct 10 percent of the telework expenses they pay each year, up to $500. The deduction would increase to 20 percent, or up to $1,000, for employees with disabilities and employees of small businesses.

The bill also includes $5 million for a two-year Small Business Administration pilot program to raise awareness about telecommuting among owners of small businesses.

The Telework Advancement Act is one of several telework bills under consideration by Congress. They include the Telework Tax Incentive Act, H.R. 1012, introduced in March 2001 by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and a companion Senate bill, S. 521, introduced by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

The bills provide for an annual $500 tax credit for employees or employers purchasing furnishings and electronic information equipment for teleworking.

The idea of using tax credits to spur teleworking "has gained traction in the last year or so," said Elyse Bauer, spokeswoman for Wolf. "If other members are introducing legislation, that bodes well."

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