SALT LAKE CITY — Citing taxpayer savings and increased productivity, Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox says the state will expand telecommuting to an additional 2,500 state government workers.
During an announcement Monday, he also noted the move will boost air quality by getting more cars off the road.
Already, the pilot program put in place last year is demonstrating more effective utilization of office space by creating shared work environments in which workers rotate in and out and don't lay "claim" to a personal workspace.
By reducing the number of bodies in the physical workspace, the state of Utah will not have to replace in square footage the aging State Office Building at the state Capitol complex and the Utah Department of Health will forego space requirements at its building on Medical Drive and instead lease it to the University of Utah.
Kristen Cox, executive director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, said the pilot demonstrated that state government can reduce its demand for new building construction or leased space, saving millions in the Salt Lake City metro area's pricey real estate market. The leased building on Medical Drive the state is giving up means an annual savings of $220,000 in operations and maintenance.
The state rolled out the pilot last fall involving 136 employees across four state agencies: the Department of Administrative Services; the Division of Purchasing, Division of Technology Services; and the Utah Department of Human Resource Management.
The lieutenant governor said the employees and agencies were carefully evaluated for the ability to use metrics to measure workplace performance. Overall, those employees' productivity increased by 23 percent and the program averted 273 pounds of vehicle emissions, he said.
Workers who volunteered to participate in the pilot had to demonstrate an actual physical workspace in their home dedicated to their job, detail the type of vehicle they drive and agree to permanently forfeit personal workspace in the office.
The plan now is to target 2,555 state government workers, or 30 percent of eligible employees, and enroll them in teleworking over the next 18 months.
Spencer Cox said he became inspired about the potential accomplishments of teleworking while on the road in rural Utah promoting Gov. Gary Herbert's rural jobs initiative.
Herbert wants to add 25,000 jobs to Utah's 25 rural counties over the next few years.
"During that time I became a televangelist for telework," the lieutenant governor said.
The Wasatch Front, he added, has a need for workers but not enough people, but rural Utah, in contrast, has the people, but few job opportunities.
He pitched his idea about linking the needs between the two geographic regions to some of the big tech companies, but said he received a tepid response.
"They believe you have to have a big building and put people in it," he said.
The pilot involved technical training for the teleworkers but also emphasized training for management on ways to keep communication going among in-house workers and the telework employees.
Kristen Cox said manager training was a must if the program was to be a success.
Cox, who has been blind since she was a child, quipped that it is ridculous for managers to believe they have to "see" someone in an office chair to believe they are working.
That's not her reality, she added.
Windy Aphayrath, assistant director of the Utah Division of Purchasing, was among the employees who agreed to participate in the program.
She said she saves an hour each way per day — and avoids added stress — because she doesn't have to commute from her home in Herriman.
Each morning, she gets up and gets ready as if she is going to leave the house, getting in the "physical" frame of mind that she is in a workspace, not her home.
She said she believes she's become a more effective communicator with co-workers because she participates in "intentional communication to stay engaged."
Merilee Richins, deputy director of the Utah Department of Administrative Services, said intentional communication is important so both types of employees are talking with one another about workflow and tasks at hand.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the program was the emotional reactions to the loss of personal workspace.
It was more difficult than anyone imagined, Richins said.
"There was a real thought that if you don't see pictures of kids at my desk than you won't see that I am here and relevant," she said.
The consultant the state hired for the pilot offered the services of an organizational psychologist to help with the transition.
While there is suspicion or the notion that teleworkers are in their pajamas all day or watching television, Jeff Johnson, a state purchasing agent, said he became more conscientious about work.
"I feel a lot more responsibility for what I am doing," said Johnson, who lives in Springville.
Kristen Cox said the state looked to areas of the country where teleworking was a success, like Tennessee, where 16 state government agencies employ 6,000 people who telework at least part of the time. That three-year-old program saves workers an estimated $1,800 a month in gasoline and dropped sick leave by 37 percent.6 comments on this story
More importantly, however, she said Utah looked at examples where telework programs failed, and what went wrong and why.
In that review, Utah officials found that the floundering telework programs focused exclusively on the teleworkers themselves and ignored other employees.
The lieutenant governor said the teleworking effort may also allow people who moved away from their rural communities to work on the Wasatch Front to return to their hometowns.
"The technology is cheap and ubiquitous and available," he said.