Working away

Employers increasingly offer telecommuting, flexible scheduling options

Posted on Jun 25, 2019 :: Insight Insider
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Two days a week, Becca Brown steps into her home office and settles in for her workday.

The days she spends working remotely in her role of marketing and communications specialist look much like any day she would spend in the office of her employer, J. J. Keller & Associates. They begin with a cup of coffee and include meetings and phone calls.

Brown, who joined the company about a year and a half ago, worked remotely in her previous role. When she began looking for a new job, it was important to her to maintain the arrangement.

A couple of factors make working remotely appealing to Brown. She suffers migraines and working from home allows her to take steps that can help mitigate the likelihood of triggering a crippling headache, including working with the lights off or running a fan for white noise. In addition, it allows her to avoid the 90-minute daily commute between her De Pere home and J. J. Keller’s Neenah office.

“The ability to work remotely gives me the ability to control my work environment a little bit, which is important to me,” she says.

Korey Crawford, a lead account sales representative for J. J. Keller, works remotely full time from her home in Grafton. In a previous role, she faced a daily commute to downtown Milwaukee that consumed time, money and fuel. A mom of two young children, Crawford’s remote work arrangement also allows her to spend more time with her family.

Brown and Crawford are two of about 370 employees, or 25 percent of the J. J. Keller workforce, who work remotely at least part of the time. Amy Sabourin, vice president of human resources and associate services for the company, says it’s an arrangement that helps the company attract and retain talent.

“We’ve come a long way in the last five years,” she says. “Five years ago, we had about 70, so we really have increased our focus on it, and it’s served us very well.”

Telecommuting on the rise found that 4.3 million employees, or 3.2 percent of the workforce, work from home at least half the time. Furthermore, the number of remote workers has grown by 140 percent since 2005, nearly 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce or the self-employed.

J. J. Keller is part of that trend. The Neenah company has long employed remote workers, including those in field sales and consultant roles. Sabourin says the company saw the arrangement working well for those employees and began to expand it further.

Letting people work from afar allowed the company to retain some associates it might have otherwise lost when a spouse transferred for a job or someone wanted to move back to their home state to care for an aging parent. Remote workers may live in one of 31 states where J. J. Keller has employees or in the Fox Cities.

Sabourin admits it can take effort to persuade some leaders to embrace remote working arrangements, especially if they have more traditional ideas about what a workday should look like. The company, however, challenged the executive leadership team to look at groups of employees where J. J. Keller could pilot remote working programs.

The pilot program began about five years ago and focused on highly measurable, production-type jobs that had clear metrics. Leaders analyzed productivity metrics in office workers versus remote, and the results for remote workers either matched or exceeded those of office workers. Today, J. J. Keller employs remote workers in creative roles such as editors as well as field and inside sales, consulting and IT.

Sabourin says remote workers may or may not have a specific reason they want to work from home, and it doesn’t really matter as long as the arrangement makes sense for the role. She shares the story of a supervisor who approached her and laid out a set a of circumstances seeking approval for an associate from Stevens Point to work remotely — the answer was yes.

“We don’t need to build a story on why someone can,” Sabourin says. “It just happened to be that her role was conducive to it. She was a great-performing associate. Whether you have all those unusual circumstances or not, anyone can do it if it works for the role.”

Flexibility for all

Appleton-based Integrity Insurance recognizes that employees prize flexibility in their work schedules and has responded accordingly. Of its approximately 130 employees, about 25 percent either work in the field or full-time remote roles. This includes positions such as field claims adjusters, loss control specialists, sales and field underwriters.

The other 75 percent who work in the home office also enjoy the flexibility to work from home. Unless a role requires someone’s physical presence in the office, they can take advantage of that flexibility, says Sarah Krause, assistant vice president of talent management and operations for Integrity.

If, for example, someone is having furniture delivered and needs to stay at home for a specific window, that employee can have their office calls forwarded to their cell phone.

“An agent or policyholder could call and would never know the difference that you’re at home or you’re in the home office here,” Krause says. “It’s really a seamless experience for our customers.”

While providing flexibility builds trust and equity with employees, it also helps make the company nimbler in responding to unforeseen circumstances, Krause says. When the polar vortex hit this past winter, Integrity was prepared to continue providing service while also ensuring employees could work from home, allowing them to remain safe and
manage situations such as kids staying home from school.

Krause says while employees thrive working remotely, the company also strives to ensure all employees feel connected to the company and their co-workers. Integrity holds quarterly all-associate meetings, and field and remote employees are encouraged to come to the home office at least twice a year. In addition, managers conduct video conferencing to include remote workers in team meetings and touch base via Skype.

Tools of the trade

Michael Pynch, technology partner at Wipfli, has experience both working remotely and helping other companies establish their own mobile workforce arrangements. Younger workers, especially, increasingly seek flexibility and the ability to work from anywhere at any time, he says.

“If you build your model to enable that, you’re going to keep a lot more workforce,” he says.

Talent attraction and retention are two of many compelling reasons to offer remote working arrangements, Pynch says. In larger urban areas, it’s difficult to justify the cost of having everyone work onsite. For example, he started his career working at Arthur Andersen in downtown Chicago, and the company could not afford for everyone to have their own cubicle.

Equipping a mobile workforce can also allow companies to cast a wider net for talent. J. J. Keller sometimes recruits for specialized jobs — for example marketing expertise in a specific industry — where an ideal candidate is difficult to find in the Fox Valley. Having a mobile workforce allows the company to look for talent in places such as Minneapolis or Chicago.

In addition to Wisconsin, Integrity Insurance does business in Minnesota and Iowa and employs field associates in each state. It also employs workers farther afield, including a few in Florida and one in Utah — all talent the company didn’t want to lose after people’s circumstances led them to relocate.

Rapidly evolving technology makes it increasingly accessible for companies to establish a mobile workforce. A lot of work that exists today can be done from anywhere, Pynch says, and the affordability and usability of technology makes it easier than ever to implement remote working solutions.

Wipfli has set a goal of allowing all employees to do 50 to 75 percent of their jobs from their phone. When people can use technology through their phone in a secure manner, it opens the door for them to work from any place, Pynch says.

The cloud enables many capabilities, Pynch says, and Wipfli relies on other tools such as Microsoft Stack, Office 365 and Azure to make remote working seamless. Companies can use virtual private networks, or VPNs, such as Citrix to ensure cybersecurity.

Before embarking on cultivating a remote workforce, Pynch says it’s wise to understand how processes and staff engagement might vary under a different work system. Conducting a pilot, as J. J. Keller did, with a couple of employees can help, as can seeking expert advice, he says.

“You want to have a technology provider plugged into what you want to do and why and helping you make the right decisions, so you are investing in the right software and hardware to support that,” he says.


Making it work

Veteran remote workers from J. J. Keller & Associates and Wipfli share some tips for success when working from home.

Becca Brown, marketing and communications specialist, J. J. Keller; works from home two days a week and in the office the other three: Start gradually — she began with one day at home before increasing to two — and set yourself up for success. “The biggest advice I can give is dedicate your workspace, wherever it is, whether it’s your desk or your dining room table. Know that when you’re in that space, that’s where your mind is at.”

Korey Crawford, lead account sales representative, J. J. Keller; works remotely full time:  “I think the biggest downfall you could have is if you don’t stay in contact with your team.” She says most sales reps on her team work remotely, so they practice team building via Skype, share videos, email one another to share news about sales successes and reach out to new team members.

Michael Pynch, technology partner, Wipfli; works from home part-time: For employees with a hybrid working arrangement, know which tasks work best for working remotely and which work better in person. Sometimes in brainstorming sessions, it’s still more convenient to use a whiteboard to work through ideas with a group of gathered people. For independent work, though, employees often can accomplish more away from the office with fewer distractions, he says. “I absolutely am more productive at my own house — for doing some work.”