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Working from Home: It's in the Details The benefits include lower costs and greater productivity, but figuring out how to communicate with off-site employees is crucial Traffic surrounding Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., has become so congested that Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire nearly missed a 9 a.m. speech at the company's main campus one recent morning. Roads leading to the software maker simply weren't designed to handle the 35,000 commuters who report for work there each day. The gridlock that greeted Gregoire was just the latest reminder that Microsoft needs to tackle its commuter crisis -- and quick. So Microsoft (MSFT) has embarked on a program aimed at getting more employees to work from home and other off-site locales, joining the growing ranks of companies to catch the virtual-workplace wave. About 14% of the U.S. workforce gets its job done at a home office more than two days per week, says Charlie Grantham, executive producer of consulting firm Work Design Collaborative. That's up from 11% in 2004, and is set to grow to 17% by 2009. Pros and Cons Benefits of letting employees work from outside the office include keeping cars off the road, helping a company to bolster its green bona fides. But the practice can also foster employee retention, boost worker productivity, and slash real estate costs. At IBM (IBM), about 42% of the company's 330,000 employees work on the road, from home, or at a client location, saving the computer company about $100 million in real estate-related expenses a year. VIPdesk, an employer of at-home customer-service reps, hangs onto 85% of its employees each year, compared with the 10% to 20% rate for traditional call centers, according to consulting firm IDC. And virtual workers are about 16% more productive than office workers, according to Grantham's research. For all the benefits of freeing workers from the office, drawbacks abound. First, not everyone wants to leave. Some fear they will step off the corporate ladder, while others need a busy environment to stay productive. Some managers are reluctant to scatter direct reports because keeping tabs on a virtual workforce can be harder than managing those close at hand. Some virtual workers can feel lonely, isolated, or deprived of vital training and mentoring. And communication breakdowns can impede innovation, trust, job satisfaction, and performance.
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