How Cox Communications Joined the Teleworking Revolution

The popularity of teleworking is based on a simple premise posed by an obvious question: Why should someone have to drive to an office to talk on the phone and use a computer for work if they have a computer and a phone at home?

Cable TV provider Cox Communications uses Citrix desktop virtualization technology to make work software applications travel to an employee's home rather than the employee traveling to work.

About 2,000 of Cox's 22,000 employees are teleworkers, many of which are call center operators providing customer service to Cox's 6 million subscribers, according to a case study provided by Citrix.

The Cox story is typical of the growing numbers of employers who are using the teleworker option because of its many benefits: it's easier to recruit employees if they don't have to commute; it saves employees money spent on gasoline; it protects business continuity in the event of a disaster that disrupts commuting; it saves the company overhead for real estate and office equipment; and it more environmentally friendly if fewer vehicles are on the road.

No matter how you slice it teleworkers numbers are growing -- for both environmental and practical reasons -- says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of The Telework Coalition, a nonprofit organization of companies with telework programs.

Rising gas prices and greater concern about global climate change are part of the equation, but so is the cost of infrastructure needed to support an office-based worker, Wilsker says. If more employees work from home, a company needs to lease less office space and can save money on the energy needed to heat and cool that space.

And as a practical matter, telework protects business continuity in the event of a disaster. Wilsker cites examples ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the Aug. 1 bridge collapse in Minneapolis as calamities that disrupted commuting patterns and prompted companies to consider the teleworker option.

After Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005, Cox hired teleworkers from beyond the area to continue operations because the exodus of thousands of residents after the hurricane shrank the labor pool.

The reality of $3-a-gallon gas, and the prospect of US$4-a-gallon gas, prompted Cox to launch its Cox Connect teleworker program, says Josh Nelson, vice president of information and network technology for Cox.

"If it costs you more in gasoline than what you make in a day, are you really going to go to the office?" Nelson notes. "It really started us focusing on that there has to be a better way to do this."

Today Cox employs 350 to 400 teleworkers in Arizona, about a third of the total call center workforce in that state, he says.

Cox Connect provides a green benefit to the company. Like other cable TV providers, it has a large fleet of trucks that drive around the area hooking up service or responding to troubleshooting calls. Those vehicles must travel, so teleworkers help offset the air pollution created by them.

Cox chose Citrix technology to set up teleworkers because they can work from home on their own computers so the company doesn't have to deploy its own equipment to each home. The only technical requirements are a broadband connection and an Internet Explorer Web browser, Nelson says. Enterprise security needs are addressed because the Citrix solution keeps the business software application on the corporate server and only delivers the desktop user interface to the teleworker's computer. Any data a teleworker enters on the screen -- the address of a home where a subscriber needs service, for example -- is stored on the corporate server. Cox can scan the teleworker's computer for viruses and blocks the computer's save and print functions so corporate data can't be copied.

But teleworking is not for everybody, he says. The company doesn't mandate teleworking and trains people in the office on how to do the call center job before setting them up in their home.

New hires or those transitioning from office work to telework are "nested" in an office setting designed to mimic the home office, with a standard PC, cable modem and a phone. That way they learn the call center job with supervisors on hand before they start doing the job at home.

The company estimates it saves about $3,400 per year, per call center agent, based on the cost of a computer, its software, a phone and a cubicle. Cox also avoids the costs of office space, energy and providing employee parking.

A 2006 Telework Coalition benchmarking study, based on a survey of 13 coalition member companies, showed that they saved between $3,000 and $10,000 per employee in real estate costs. Cox was not part of the survey.

Cox takes care that its teleworkers not be isolated in their home office environment, says nelson. The company requires teleworkers to travel to the regional office once every one or two weeks for meetings and also uses video conferencing to stay in touch.

"Working from home doesn't mean they want to be alone," Nelson says. "We don't want to lose our company culture, we don't want to lose the connection with our employees."

Managing teleworkers requires a different style than managing office-based workers, but it goes beyond making them come into the office on occasion, The Teleworker Coalition's Wilsker says.

"For too many people, managing is seeing somebody's ass in a chair," Wilsker says. A manager of a large work force may not interact much with his or her employees even if they are in the office, so having workers in the office doesn't by itself mean they are better managed.

Instead, he says, managing teleworkers should be based on a measure of how much work they are getting done, not whether the manager sees them face-to-face.

This story, "How Cox Communications Joined the Teleworking Revolution" was originally published by Network World.

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