City Employees Prove Program Works in Portland

The city of Portland invested six months in a pilot telecommuting project. The results: happier employees, many of whom were able to increase the amount of work they do - and do it better - and a permanent telecommuting program for city staff.

The Oregon Department of Energy and the City of Portland Energy Office directed the pilot project for 30 city employees in 11 bureaus. "Our interest was to reduce fuel consumption and air pollution by making it easier for people to drive less," says Susan Anderson, director of the Portland Energy Office. "But we learned from city employees that telecommuting also is a great tool for improving productivity and morale."

After a half-day of training for telecommuters and their supervisors, participants began working at home one day a week. Jobs held by telecommuters include hearings officer, planner, human resources analyst, administrative supervisor, management information systems (MIS) support technician, computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) technician, programmer analyst, community relations assistant, program specialist, and office manager.

Supervisors found telecommuting improved employee morale, increased effectiveness and boosted staff productivity. They attributed many of the benefits to an improved work environment with fewer interruptions. Overall, supervisors found the quality and quantity of the telecommuters' work remained the same or improved slightly, as did the overall productivity of their work groups.

"The City Council and I have given our wholehearted endorsement to telecommuting as an option for city employees," says Portland Mayor Vera Katz. "Telecommuting is one more way government can help citizens get more value for their tax dollars, while helping the environment at the same time."

Jan Hazzard is the mayor’s office manager and team leader for support staff. She prepares the office budget, processes bills for payment, manages payroll, maintains personnel documents, and tracks documents for boards and commissions for the office of Mayor Katz.

Hazzard began telecommuting informally, processing bills for payment on her home computer on one of her days off. Now she spends Wednesdays working at home on that task, saving a 17-mile round-trip commute.

"I'm much more productive getting my particular assignments done at home," says Hazzard. "I'm not interrupted and the inconveniences have been minor." Better concentration, she says, “means work quality is bound to be better." She believes that telecommuters should work on projects that are ‘trackable’; so managers know what employees accomplish at their home office.

Her supervisor Sam Adams, Chief of staff for Mayor Katz, agrees. "Telecommuting requires a job description with performance measures that allow you to measure the work that's getting done," he said.

Adams raises another requirement that Portland city government telecommuting must meet -- the City Council's directive that all city bureaus work collaboratively. "Telecommuting could be at conflict with that goal if we have employees at home isolated from the rest of their team," he says. "But this can be overcome as we overcome technology barriers."

The city recently equipped Hazzard with a modem to access the network for e-mail and to get on-line with the city's financial management system.

"Overall I'm very positive about the project, for Portland, for Jan and our office," says Adams. "Once we address the technological barriers it will be a fantastically productive option for city employees."

Among the benefits of telecommuting, says Adams, is a boost in employee morale and work quality. "It increases the ease in which they're able to complete a job and takes away the stress of having to travel to work. It also has a positive impact on the quality of work."

Nelda Skidmore is a senior personnel analyst with the Bureau of Personnel Services. She spends much of her time meeting with supervisors and employees to collect information on duties and responsibilities of city positions and comparing it with information from other jurisdictions. Fridays are devoted to analysis, documentation and report writing. She does that work at her home office -- "a better place to do it," says Skidmore -- and skips the 45-minute round-trip bus commute.

"Our open-office environment leads to a lot of interruptions," says Skidmore. "When I'm telecommuting my concentration is so much better. I can get more done because I can limit interruptions."

Allan Messer is Skidmore's counterpart at the bureau. They divide many tasks, but collaborate on larger projects involving compensation policies, best practices and organizational structure. They check in regularly with one another on Skidmore's telecommuting days. "We like to keep track of what we're doing and how things are going," says Messer.

Skidmore has a copy of most typically-used work-related documents at her home office. Occasionally she calls Messer to get additional information. "If it would take a lot of time, she typically saves that for the next day she's in the office," says Messer. "Nelda's telecommuting has been really good for us. We can organize our work so that complex reports that might take several days to complete in the office can be done in a day at home."

Their team leader, Compensation Manager Judi Jones, agrees that Skidmore's telecommuting is good for the team. "She'll come back on Monday with three or four reports that are really well-thought out." Jones herself telecommutes at least once a month.

Jones says that telecommuting fits well with Personnel Services' work with bureaus on improving schedule flexibility and increasing employee diversity. Telecommuting can allow flexibility for employees with young children and help bring into the workplace people with disabilities, she explains.

Sometimes the team has three-way phone calls on days Skidmore works at home. On the occasional Fridays when a bigger staff meeting is necessary, they connect her from home to a speaker phone in the meeting room. Skidmore also cancels or changes her telecommuting day when staff discuss issues best suited for face-to-face meetings or she needs to be in the office for other reasons.

"I feel it's an important option that the city provides employees, depending on the situation and the needs of both the organization and the employee," adds Skidmore. "It's another way for an organization to be a little more flexible and actually come out ahead."

Karen Lundsten, MIS support analyst in the Bureau of Maintenance, spends most of her time troubleshooting network or system problems, upgrading hardware, and training and assisting users. That makes it hard to get to her other duties whcih include keeping up with changes in computer technology and software, maintaining a database on all the computers, figuring the best ways to upgrade the bureau's computers and network, and thinking up computer tips and tricks that improve productivity in the office. When Lundsten applied for the city’s telecommuting project she knew she would have to find a way to fix any network or system problems that arose when she was telecommuting.

"I was nervous about it because I couldn't see how I could troubleshoot remotely," says Lundsten. "But I've only had to come into the office a couple of times a year on my telecommuting days because I’m not able to fix the problem from home." Lundsten avoids a 12-mile round-trip commute by working at home on Wednesdays.

Lundsten's pager lets her know she has a telephone message whether she's working at the office or at home. She has support backup from Larry Wolf, support services manager. They work out by phone solutions to problems that come up. Lundsten usually can diagnose problems from her home office by connecting to the bureau's network.

"Getting more work done -- I see that as the number one benefit," says Lundsten. "I get to plan ahead, not just troubleshoot and the city also gets a more knowledgeable person because of the time spent in research."

Jim Carlton does computer-aided design and drafting for storm and sanitary sewers and water quality and water detention systems for the Bureau of Environmental Services. An all-terrain vehicle accident a few years ago left Carlton a quadriplegic. Telecommuting has allowed him to continue full-time work. Carlton works four 10-hour days at his home office. His typical workday begins at 8 a.m. He works until noon, takes two hours for lunch and exercise outside in his wheelchair, then works from 2 p.m. to dinner-time. Carlton continues work after dinner as late as 9:30 p.m. He attends staff meetings at the bureau's downtown office about once a month.

"For people with handicaps, it's essential to work in an environment that works for them," says Carlton. "In the U.S., there are about 500,000 people with spinal cord injuries and 70 percent of them don't work. It's probably because of the hassle. If they can be in an environment that works for them, they can be productive. I like having my home office with things set up just the way I need them. Everything is easier."

If Carlton had to go to the office everyday, he believes he might only be able to work part-time because of the inconvenience of the commute and his exercise needs. He estimates his round-trip commute to be about two hours by van.

"I try to check in with coworkers often," he says. Carlton's computer is connected to the city's network. He gets data from the network, does his drawings, sends completed projects to the bureau's plotter for printing, and sends and receives coworkers' e-mail.

Mike Murray, CADD manager for the bureau, says it's easy to quantify his employees' productivity, whether they're at their bureau desk or their home office. "Because I've done this job myself, I know how long it takes to draft a set of plans. Jim gets the work done when it needs to be done."

Murray sees telecommuting as a way managers can support and encourage their employees. "Production depends on the person's commitment to their work. One way to foster the commitment is to assign the work and let them go for it. Let them take work home and they realize they're being trusted and as a result they have a better work product."