published Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Telecommuting grows in Tennessee as companies cut office costs

Work-at-home employers

Chattanooga's biggest users of telecommute employees include:

• BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, 1,000 workers.

• Unum Corp., more than 1,000 workers nationwide, including 409 in Chattanooga

• Cigna Corp., 700 in the Chattanooga area.

Telework advantages

• Cuts office and parking expenses for employers

• Cuts travel time and expenses for employees

• Cuts energy use, pollution and traffic congestion for community

Telework disadvantages

• Limits personal relationships among workers

• Less direct, line-of-sight management, coaching by employers

• Limits demand for and construction of offices, stores and roads

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Heather Bridgeman lives nearly 20 miles from the downtown headquarters of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, but the BlueCross customer service expert still walks to her job every day.

The daily commute for Bridgeman involves walking upstairs to the office she set up in her husband's former "man cave." Using a BlueCross telephone, computer and desk, she talks with customers, health care providers and other BlueCross employees without ever leaving her residence.

"I'm a people person so at first I wondered if I would miss going downtown and working beside my colleagues," said Bridgeman, who began working at BlueCross five years ago and shifted her workspace from the Cameron Hill corporate campus to her Hixson home two years ago. "But I quickly found out I'm able to communicate with others via computer or the telephone just as much as when I was in the office all the time. I really think my productivity has improved, and it's also nice to avoid the drive back and forth to work every day."

In just five years, the Tennessee BlueCross plan has shifted one of every six workers to such work-at-home jobs. Other Chattanooga insurers, including Unum and Cigna, employ more than 10 percent of their workers in telecommuting jobs.

Across Tennessee, a new study estimates 489,000 adults worked from home instead of commuting to work last year, two and a half times more than just four years ago. Connected Tennessee, a statewide advocacy group for broadband Internet services, said the number of telecommuting workers could more than double again if broadband connections are improved and more companies allow their employees to work at home.

According to statewide surveys by Connected Tennessee, nearly 1.2 million Tennesseans, or 44 percent of employed Tennesseans, said they would be willing to work at home if given the opportunity by their employers. An additional 586,000 Tennessee adults who do not currently work say they would be willing to do so if they were allowed to telework.

"We continue to see significant growth in telecommute jobs, but there is potential for far more, especially in rural areas where many higher-paying jobs were not available in the past," said Corey Johns, executive director for Connected Tennessee.

Overall, Tennessee is slightly below the U.S. average in the share of telecommuting workers in the Volunteer State. But Johns said Chattanooga's gigabit-per-second Internet speeds via EPB fiber optics open up more jobs such as tele-medicine to those wanting to work from home.

"While some Tennesseans may only take advantage of limited telework opportunities merely requiring basic broadband speeds, Chattanooga clearly has access to the full spectrum of telework opportunities and that is certainly a competitive advantage for those working to advance local economic development," he said.

Connected Tennessee's study found that a typical Nashville telecommuter saves $2,300 a year in transportation expenses and cuts his or her carbon footprint by 9,500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year by working from home.

"There are clear economic, market and environmental advantages in promoting telecommuting," Johns said.

Homework PITS and Potential

Working at home is clearly not for everyone. Most jobs require workers to serve customers in hospitality or store settings or to produce products or to raise crops at designated work sites.

BlueCross and other employers promoting telecommuting in Chattanooga also say they screen workers picked for at-home jobs to ensure they are self-starters and work effectively on their own.

Global Workplace Analytics, formerly the Telework Research Network, estimates that less than 2 percent of U.S. employees work from home the majority of the time, excluding self-employed workers.

But the trade group for telecommute workers estimates 40 percent of employees hold jobs that are compatible with telecommuting.

Working at home could reduce the demand for new offices, stores and highway additions. But Global Workplace Analytics estimates the savings would more than offset the reduced demand for new construction.

If workers who could work from home spent just half of their work time telecommuting from their residences, experts project they and their employers and communities would save up to $650 billion a year in energy, road, car, office and other expenses.

Forrester Research recently projected that 63 million U.S. workers will telecommute at least part-time by 2016, up from about 46 million today.

"We're well on our way to hitting that mark," T.J. Keitt, a senior analyst with Forrester, said in a recent report. "To cope with a more mobile workforce, many organizations have bolstered deployments of laptop computers, smartphones, and collaboration software."

Office space savings

Jeff Wakefield, a human resources director at BlueCross, said the insurer began offering employees the chance to work at home when the company consolidated its Chattanooga staff, once housed in a dozen office building around Chattanooga, into its $300 million corporate campus on Cameron Hill in 2008.

"Initially, we wanted to reduce the footprint of the number of people housed here at Cameron Hill because we simply didn't have enough room for everybody," he said. "We've found over time that having telecommute workers has also helped us to be able to maintain services during inclement weather and to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing the amount of travel by our employees."

Last month, the Chattanooga-based BlueCross added its 1,000th telecommute employee.

"We reached that milestone much earlier than I had anticipated, but these work-at-home programs have really worked out very well," Wakefield said.

Despite initial concerns about the lack of "line of sight" management of telecommute workers, technology allows managers to evaluate performance and communicate regularly with workers no matter where they are stationed.

Distant work

BlueCross workers are in homes in 20 states as far away as Alaska and California.

Karen Eilers helps coach, train and oversee other BlueCross customer service specialists from her home in Panama City, Fla.

The technical team leader joined BlueCross in 2006 and initially thought she would never want to work away from the company's home office in Chattanooga.

But when her father-in-law died and her husband had to take over the Florida business, she discovered a major advantage of telecommuting. From her Panama City home more than 400 miles away from BlueCross' headquarters, Eilers is able to teach and review work by other BlueCross employees via shared computer screens, instant messaging, telephone calls and other electronic connections.

"It was really a great transition and by working at home myself I think I am better able to understand the concerns of other telecommuters," she said. "It's been a real godsend for me."

Unum Corp., and its predecessor, Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co., have used telecommuting workers for the past decade. Company spokeswoman M.C. Guenther said more than 1,000 Unum employees now work primarily from home, including 409 in Chattanooga.

Traci Wilson, a Unum customer service representative who lives near Red Bank, says she took advantage of the at-home work option six years ago and appreciates the chance to spend more time at home with her two children.

Her daily commute to work is only 20 feet to a first-floor office in her home.

"With my work schedule, I can get dinner or the laundry started during my breaks and I don't have to spend any time getting back and forth to work," she said.

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about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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