Snowed in with kids, still working

It’s Day 4 of working from home. Cabin fever may be setting in, but I’m not out of my mind yet. Work has been my main distraction from being surrounded by snow and ice. All week, in fact, I have been successfully knocking items off my to-do list. Barring a sudden loss of the Internet or cell service, I am good to go.

It certainly has not been a typical workweek for metro Atlanta employers or commuters. Many of us have entered a state of “emergency teleworking” — doing our jobs from home, when we usually report to the office and head to meetings.

My wife is a seasoned, full-time teleworker who has taken this approach to an art form, so it has been business as usual for her. Taking a few lessons from her, I have been almost as productive as I am from my downtown Atlanta office of the Clean Air Campaign.

Of course, we are not usually coping with the kids during the work day, but thanks to rotating tag teams of parents and the magic of snow, it has worked well. Since our kids are accustomed to the work-at-home model, they know what it means when a door is closed and mom’s on the phone. But telework hasn’t taken all the fun out of snow days. Occasional sledding and snowmen breaks have certainly helped me maintain my sanity.

The events of this week have taught us that telework defies snow and ice. Work days that would have once been lost to the extreme conditions no longer need to be written off.

The nearly 500,000 people in metro Atlanta who telework at least occasionally probably have appreciated this fact these past few days. They were better positioned to remain productive, stay on top of the inbox and avoid the frustration of not being able to complete time-sensitive tasks. For employers unprepared, with no telework plan or policy, this week could be considered a missed opportunity, or a lesson learned.

Take the federal government, for example. Last winter’s D.C. snowstorm crippled most government employees’ ability to get their jobs done outside their offices. Following the storm, Congress acted and last month passed the 2010 Telework Improvements Act, a bill that requires federal agencies to institute telework policies, determine eligibility and train those who are able to telework.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the act will cost agencies $30 million to implement during the next five years — about one-third of a single day of lost productivity when federal workers cannot get to their jobs in D.C. alone.

When it comes to capacity for telework, metro Atlanta possesses a particular advantage. Ranked No. 2 among America’s most-wired cities last year, Atlanta has the infrastructure in place to assure that business can get done. But it is important to maintain perspective. This week it’s about winter weather. Next time it could be an entirely different set of circumstances, even something as dire as a flu pandemic.

An additional 350,000 potential teleworkers in metro Atlanta currently are waiting in the wings — not allowed to work from home but with a job function that would permit it. The Clean Air Campaign has worked with more than 250 employers in the region on programs to foster telework, whether motivated by business continuity or streamlining overhead expenses.

If you have employees with critical roles who are not set up to telework or you don’t have a formal telework program, the time is now. If this week doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

The snow and ice came in. We were stuck at home. But we were not all kept away from work. A job, after all, is something you do, not a place you go.

Kevin Green is executive director of the Clean Air Campaign.