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Teleworking might be future trend for IRB and research offices
Many IRB offices have transitioned to completely electronic documentation and processes in recent years. This trend offers flexibility to IRB staffing and office space. It also begs the question: Now that work can be done remotely, when will IRB offices begin allowing staff to telework?
The numbers of employees who are teleworking nationwide has skyrocketed in recent years with an estimated 20 to 30 million Americans working from their homes at least part time.
The percentage of Americans who work from home for their employer at least one day a month has jumped by 74% since 2005, according to Telework Research Network and American Community Service data.
This trend coincides with Congress passing on Nov. 18, 2010, the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 9, 2010. The new law requires federal agencies to set telework policies and provide telework programs for all eligible employees by mid-2011. An estimated 5.24% of the total federal employee population was listed as teleworkers in 2008, and that percentage is expected to greatly increase as a result of the new law.
According to the federal government's description of implementing telework, this type of working arrangement could make it easier for employers to find workers with specific skill sets or retain employees who relocate because of a spouse's job.
At least one IRB office has experimented with telework and found this to be a way to improve staff morale and increase work productivity.
"Teleworking was something we wanted to try, so we presented the idea to upper management," says Laura Greene, RN, CCRP, CIP, clinical protocol analyst at the human research protection program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.
"We thought it could work and increase employee satisfaction and retention," Greene says. "Having a program like this helps retain quality people."
Greene's team leader asked her to write a policy and make a presentation to upper management about telework. She came up with a plan and successfully presented it. The managers decided to try it on a part-time, temporary basis in a pilot program.
Six people, including Greene, started teleworking one day a week for six weeks in June 2010. After a follow-up meeting with managers, they decided to expand the telework program to two days a week and offer this to any employee who worked five days a week. For employees on a four-day, 40-hour work week, the telework program was offered for one day a week.
Just about all of the work an IRB office employee does can be done remotely, Greene notes.
The big exception is attendance to IRB meetings, which are held weekly at Vanderbilt.
"The team is expected to be there on meeting day," she says. "And there are other things like education and meetings with principal investigators (PIs) that might require someone to be in the office."
So the telework time is spent analyzing protocols. Also, the institution's process improvement team has begun some telework, as well.
The IRB office's work efficiency has improved since the teleworking program began, says Emily Foster, BA, CIP, protocol analyst II in Vanderbilt's human research protection program.
"We see a decrease in the time it takes us to pull together something and have first contact with the PI," Foster says. "We also see with surveys that people report they have a better work-life balance with teleworking."
Employee satisfaction is greatly enhanced because the teleworking days eliminate what often becomes a two-hour round-trip commute to work.
"I'm one of those people who have an hour or more commute," Greene says. "By just not having to drive into the office, I get more work time and more time at home."
Also, Greene now has the option on her teleworking days to take her lunch hour to volunteer or visit her child at school or to run personal errands.
"All of these things make me focus more on my job when I'm working," she explains. "By not having that extra hour of commuting time and being closer to my child at lunchtime, I want to work harder."
Data confirm that teleworking has increased productivity. There has been a 3% decrease from the time of submission to the initial committee action letter, despite a 15% increase in the total number of study submissions from the time the telework program began, Foster says.
"We have had more studies but are finding that we can handle them faster," she explains. "It was taking us 12.8 days, and we've reduced that to 12.4 days for a new study, without having to increase staff."
Employers sometimes worry that at-home workers will be distracted and not put in a full day's work, but the evidence suggests that the opposite is true: "You really don't want people to have that perception of you," Foster says. "I work harder at home because I want people to see I'm working really hard and not slacking off."
Of the IRB's 20 protocol analysts, 14 expressed an interest in teleworking and nine actually participated, Greene says.
"Some of the team leaders participated in this, and we've had some team meetings by phone," she adds. "I've gotten a lot of positive feedback from them."
From the perspective of PIs and others who call the IRB office, the teleworking arrangement is invisible. Employees' phone calls are transferred to their home office by an operator service. All they need to do is call the operator service in the morning and have them forward all calls to the home number. At the end of the day, they have it switched back.
One key to making the teleworking arrangement succeed is to have a well-defined agreement that is carefully communicated to employees.
"The agreement spells out what the employee's responsibility is and what the department will provide," Greene says. "Teleworking is a privilege, and employees need to treat it as such."
The agreement ensures that everyone knows what is expected from them, how to schedule their time, forward calls, and who is eligible for telework. For instance, at Vanderbilt, the teleworking option is only available to IRB employees who have been there for 1.5 years or longer.
Another key to teleworking's success is to help management and staff get over the mindset that an employee who is out-of-sight is not at work, Foster notes.
"Everyone has to get over that hiccup before it works," she says. "We use a calendar, listing who is working at home and who is on vacation."
The calendar can be made available electronically for easy access. The IRB has it scheduled one month in advance, although teleworking employees can change their dates if a last-minute appointment comes up.
One national teleworking organization, called Undress4Success [at undress4success.com] estimates telecommuting can save companies money, as well as cut energy usage and save employees thousands of dollars in transportation costs.
"The world is changing look at how instant messaging and Skype have caught on," Greene says.
"How many meetings now are taking place online?" she adds. "We're moving in that direction of teleworking, and it's something a lot of people are talking about."