“I want to be the innovative-oriented community,” [Mayor Bill White] told the officials from about 70 Houston companies who had come to eat box lunches and hear how some area companies overcame employee concerns, soothed customer worries and taught managers how to work from afar. Direct Energy Texas, for example, had to deal with the stigma attached to signing up for a “nine-80” shift (10 days of work crammed into nine workdays) or working from home. Only 10 percent of the 220 employees who worked in what the company had identified as eligible jobs signed up for the program when it was launched, recalled Phil Tonge, Direct Energy’s president. “People were very worried,” he said. But Tonge knew employees wanted a compressed workweek or to telecommute because of their responses to a 2004 survey. They were frustrated with the time they spent in traffic getting to and from work, and with White’s mobility campaign to Get Houston Moving, it was a perfect opportunity to put the two ideas together, he said. So Tonge held a series of meetings to encourage employees to sign up. He emphasized it had his full support, and he put pressure on managers to sign on to the idea. To make telecommuting easier, the company bought laptops for some workers and provided them for departments to share. As a result, 65 percent of its eligible employees in Texas are participating, and the company is looking for ways to include more job classifications in its program.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.