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HUMAN RESOURCES

The End of Rush Hour?

Amid a tight labor market, smaller companies are hoping to retain key employees by letting them work from home and offering other commuting incentives.
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Gail Madsen hardly ever leaves his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. As vice president of new member development at Vantage Hospitality, a hotel company, Madsen has chosen to avoid the hassles of a daily commute by working from home. What's more, he still has the same responsibilities, gets the same pay and benefits, and has a full team working for him back at the office.

"I had been based out of Las Vegas for many years, and when I wanted to move to Salt Lake City, the company agreed to let me work from home five days a week," Madsen says. "This allows me to spend time with my children."

Increasingly, small businesses across the nation are adopting flexible work policies as a way of retaining top employees. In doing so, they're not only making life easier for a growing number of Americans fed up with gridlock traffic or subway delays. They're also drawing talented people back into the workforce, such as women with small children or the disabled.

According to the Census Bureau, Americans spend an average of 100 hours a year commuting -- or worse, depending on location. In New York, for instance, commuters spend a full 25 percent more time than the national average simply getting to and from work.

In a recent Salary.com survey, 38 percent of respondents cited an easier commute as one of the best reasons for working at a small business. In many cases, they were even willing to take a salary cut in exchange for less travel time.

Rod Vergas, CEO of Apex Environmental and Engineering Compliance, a Florida-based provider of engineering consulting services says one of the advantages of being a small company is that he can offer a flexible work environment for his employees. About half of the company's 27 full-time employees work from home on any given day, Vergas says.

"We have no punch card system and employees need not come to the office at all," he says.

Over the years, that's helped increase Apex's talent pool, while at the same time retain key employees, Vergas says.

In a recent telephone survey by Ipsos Public Affairs, more than a third of employees who use computers said working from home has made them more productive over the past five years.

In addition to telecommuting, small businesses are also launching carpools, though they often lack the scale -- that is, a minimum number of employees -- to make them sustainable. When that's the case, local governments can step in to help organize cross-company programs.

In Arlington County, Va., local businesses and their employees can sign on for city-managed carpools, vanpools, and car-share options, among other initiatives. The program has attracted some 600 participating employers, and is used by the city as a selling point to attract new businesses to the region, says Chris Hamilton, a commuter assistance program manager at Arlington County.

Of course, working from home involves more than just a cell phone and laptop. Companies serious about giving employees the option of working from home often invest in applications to enable access to office networks from a remote location.

At Vantage Hospitality, employees can access data on day-to-day corporate information, individual hotels, and vendors shared between seven partners across four states via the Vantage Information Center, the company intranet.

Yet, Madsen cautions that tele-working may not be suitable for everyone. For one thing, he says it takes a lot of personal discipline to be your own boss.

"You need to have control over yourself and not everyone can do it," he says. As such, Vantage Hospitality is highly selective about who can and can't work from home, allowing only employees with a strong track record.

For these and other reasons, many small businesses stick steadfastly to the traditional office model. Devon Rifkin, CEO and president of the Great American Hanger Company, a Miami-based company that manufacturers hangers, says his employees need to work together as part of a team.

"An employee's primary responsibility is adding to a team and so they must be here," Rifkin says.

Instead, the company offers staggered hours, with some employees starting at 8:30 a.m. and others at 9:30 a.m. When it comes to commuting, it seems, every advantage helps.

Last updated: Mar 7, 2007




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