Even slow growth hits IT hard

Despite all the media attention telework enjoyed in 2001, new research from IDC and Cahners In-Stat/MDR show its growth is slowing.

In a report to be released later this month, IDC puts the number of US teleworkers in 2002 at 9.1 million, just a bit higher than the 8.9 million in 2001. With an annual growth rate of 2.1 percent, IDC predicts 9.9 million teleworkers by 2006.

Released last month, the Cahners report ("Working the Wide Area: Perceptions of Internet & Wireless-Access Applications among Mobile & Remote Workers") puts the number of teleworkers in firms with more than 100 workers at 11.8 million in 2001 and expects an 8.4 percent annual increase to reach 17.6 million by 2005.

The Cahners numbers are higher for a few reasons. The firm defines teleworkers as those who work at least two days per week at home, including day extenders (those who work at home after hours). IDC defines a teleworker as someone who works at least three days per month from home, and excludes day extenders. Moreover, Cahners zeroed in on business executives with IT buying power in companies of more than 100 employees. Of those, 344 worked for midsize firms, 416 for enterprise firms. IDC conducted a random telephone survey of 2,500 US households.

IDC's numbers reflect the general population and exclude day extenders, and they reveal more about what's going on in the "core" telework industry. So why the slowdown?

It seems in the long term, the down economy has affected companies attitudes about telework more so than the aftermath of Sept. 11. Overall, employers are less focused on employee recruitment and retention, perhaps even a bit less concerned about employees' needs and desires. Similarly, employees who had felt comfortable experimenting with flexible schedules when times were better, now stay in the office to maintain visibility and fear drawing negative attention by asking for "perks."

As important, tight budgets have forced companies to put plans for pilots and large-scale telework programs on hold. Instead, money is being stretched to bolster overall network security, and beef up security of existing mobile and remote infrastructures.

Last, the types of jobs doable from home remains finite. Even though new products are being developed to widen the circle - from Wideforce and some virtual call center applications - companies won't experiment with new applications until business gets better.

But is the glass half full or half empty? While the telework industry had hoped telework would take off like hotcakes this year, firms can't support it. What looks like flat growth to telework advocates (2.1 percent) is a big headache for network executives struggling to do more with less.

In a Cahners report released last year, more than one-third (37 percent) of the enterprise IT decision makers surveyed said teleworker IT needs are having a significant impact on IT spending. More than half (60 percent) said supporting home-based workers is increasingly difficult, and nearly three-fourths (71 percent) said they expect the number of teleworkers they support to grow year to year.

Respondents in enterprise firms said they allocate 7 percent of their IT budgets to teleworkers' technology (2 percent for full time and 8 percent for part time), or roughly US$16 billion. As telling, 62 percent said they want to remotely manage that technology.

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Toni Kistner

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