Not long ago, telecommuting was the promised wave of the future. Businesses envisioned using a legion of private contractors who could work from almost anywhere, costing a fraction of full-time staff. My media colleagues and I, in fact, were at the forefront of that movement. Years ago I sat with a phone to my ear under a tree on the battleground at Gettysburg during a family vacation to conduct an interview with a powerful executive who finally called me back. Seemed odd then, but today it sounds almost routine.
Indeed, the future is here; and all kinds of companies are considering how to save money by using remote workers. I discovered that about 10 percent of the workforce telecommutes from home, more than triple the level in 2000, according to a report from Northeastern University. The trend will accelerate further in coming years, says the report.
To get an insider picture, I tracked down Janver Holly, longtime owner of Holly Construction in Sonoma County, California. When his company replaced its on-staff estimator with an offsite freelance estimator four years ago, his estimating costs sunk to about one-third of what they were before. He also leased out the office space he no longer needed for more savings.
But I got a surprise. Holly says those costs gradually crept up after several months until they reached the old levels.
- The freelancer’s hourly fee was raised about 10 percent a year, as an incentive.
- Expensive backup estimators had to be hired when a client needed a quick turnaround and the main estimator was busy.
- The hours of other staffers had to be boosted to manage the offsite worker, or Holly did the management chores instead of working with clients.
- The company paid the estimator’s travel expenses when in-person client meetings were needed.
Then Holly made one key change and his costs sunk back down. Holly signed on Greg, a former employee who wanted to work part time as an independent from his new home in Atlanta. Both estimators are very good at their work, but the change “has made all the difference,” says Holly. Greg gets more work done in fewer hours because he knows the internal system so well, and “I don’t have to spend nearly as much time acting as a go-between with him and other players in our area,” Holly says. Instead of six to eight contacts a day with Holly and the staff, Greg needs only about three daily contacts. Another plus: Although Greg now lives across country, he visits family in Sonoma County often, meaning that Holly Construction doesn’t have to pay travel expenses.