Remote possibilities. (telecommuniting) (includes related article) (Special Anniversary Issue)
by Rosalind Resnick
Ask most people to describe their dream job, and they'll start talking about great pay, top benefits, flexible hours, a short commute, and loads of quality time to spend with the family.
Mention the word telecommuting, though, and you'll get a blank stare.
Telecommuting - commonly defined as working from the home or a remote location via personal computer, phone, fax, and modem - has been around for years, but it's only now beginning to catch on in a big way. Link Resources, a New York research firm, estimates that nearly 4 million U.S. employees telecommute on at least a part-time basis with more than half a million telecommuting full-time. Just five years ago, there were fewer than 100,000 telecommuters nationwide.
Who Needs It?
"Telecommuting is like a lot of other new ideas," says Gil Gordon, a Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, consultant and publisher of "The Telecommuting Review," a newslleter for employers. "I always like to remind the skeptics that when the Xerox machine first came out, people said, ~Why do you need that? We have carbon paper.' Telecommuting is one of those rare things that works out well for both employee and employer."
In other words, what's good for the worker has suddenly become good for corporate America. With the recession forcing companies to pinch every penny, more and more managers recognize that there are sizable bottom-line benefits to letting employees work from home. Not only are telecommuters happier and more productive, studies show, but having fewer workers at the office or production plant means reduced expenses and overhead. Telecommuting also lets employers attract and retain topnotch employees who live far from the office, suffer from a disability, or need to stay home to care for a young child or an elderly relative.
Companies and government agencies that offer telecommuting include IBM, American Express, J.C. Penney, General Electric, Los Angeles County, and the Washington State Energy Office. Apple Computer, whose San Francisco Bay area employees face an arduous commute choked with traffic and pollution, has started giving workers a $1 credit in the company store every time they work from home.
Productivity and Price
Many bosses say they've been pleasantly surprised by how well their companies' telecommuting programs have worked out. National studies show that productivity can jump by as much as 20 percent when employees are allowed to work from home.
"I was apprehensive at first," says Marti Nurse, director of appeals and state hearings for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Services, who counts 35 telecommuters among the 103 staffers she supervises. "But as our caseloads have gone up, the people who are telecommuting are doing more work, and they're doing it better."
For Los Angeles County, which boasts one of the nation's largest telecommuting programs, employer altruism is a matter of dollars and cents. According to Nancy Apeles, the program's assistant manager, clerks who work from home for the county assessor's office work 64 percent faster than their counterparts in the office and save the county $30,000 a month. Of the 80,000 people who work for the county, more than 1200 now are telecommuters, up from 78 when the program was launched three years ago. "It's a win-win situation," says Apeles.
Who are America's telecommuters? Many are mothers with young children. Computer programmers tend to gravitate to telecommuting, while other telecommuters are technical writers, telephone operators, and data-entry clerks.
Los Angeles County, which numbers more than 1,200 telecommuters among its 80,000 employees, boasts 200 different telecommuting job classifications ranging from clerks and social workers to auditors and department heads.
Jim Mitchell, 50, chief of contract monitoring for the Los Angeles County Health Department and a self-described modem junkie, set up an electronic bulletin board for his 14 telecommuting employees to swap messages. He himself works from home 4 1/2 days a week.
"I do my real thinking at home," says Mitchell, who still comes to the office for a weekly staff meeting. "I think that companies that do not offer this option are going to find themselves behind the curve when it comes to recruiting."
More typical of the telecommuting population are people like Lisa Kilmain, 28, a senior associate programmer at IBM in Irving, Texas. Kilmain wasn't ready to go back to the office full-time when her daughter, Caitlin, was born two years ago. But part-time work didn't pay enough to justify what she was spending on day care. Thanks to IBM's Work-at-Home pilot program, Kilmain spent six months as a telecommuter, tapping away at her PS/2 Model 70 while Caitlin napped.
"I got a lot done at home while she was sleeping," Kilman says. "People couldn't walk into my office and say, ~Hey, what did you do last night?'"
"Being a parent myself, I knew the importance of the mother's being present," says Ed Denson, Kilman's boss. "It was good for the company, too. Lisa was able to accomplish more in her 20 hours at home than she would have in the office.
Though Kilmain is now back at the office, she says she's planning to have more children and hoping to repeat her telecommuting experience.
Chris Stroud, vice president of Financial Data Planning (FDP), a Miami software company, tells a similar story about Laura Falco, 28. Falco, a programmer who also fields phone calls from customers, cares for two young children at home while telecommuting 35 hours a week. Though FDP has no formal telecommuting program, the company has allowed Falco to work from home for the last 2 1/2 years because she's a talented self-start. FDP also picks up the tab for a second phone line.
"After my daughter was three months old, I didn't want to go back to work," Falco says. "I wanted to take care of her. The company said it was willing to try [letting me telecommute] for three months. Now, it's been two-and-a-half years."
Some of her colleagues are even a little envious. "There have been other people who have pointed to Laura and said, ~She's doing it. Why can't we?" Stroud says. "But Laura's job is very suited to working from home, and she's an extremely productive person."
Out of Sight
As Falco's story shows, telecommuting is still a privilege, not a right, even at the companies that do allow it. The reason: Many managers worry that home-based employees will be tempted to sleep late, watch television, raid the refrigerator, or take their kids to the park rather than do their jobs.
Likewise, many employees fear that, once out of sight, they'll be out of mind - passed over for raises and promotions.
If you're willing to take that risk and you want to persuade you employer to let you telecommute, the experts suggest you try the following approaches:
* Put yourself in your boss's shoes. Show your boss that telecommuting can save the company money by shrinking overhead. Point out that employees who work from home are often more productive and can keep working in spite of minor illnesses and family emergencies. Explain that telecommuting helps boost morale and keep good workers.
* Show initiative. Prove that you've got what it takes to work from home - self-discipline, organization, and the ability to handle tasks and meet deadlines without direct supervision. Demonstrate these qualities at the on-site job you have now.
* Start small. If your boss won't let you telecommute full-time, ask to try telecommuting one day a month. Once your employer feels comfortable with the idea, you can start lobbying for one day a week, two days, or more.
* Work hard. Even if your boss gives you the green light to telecommute, that doesn't mean you can't be hauled back to the office if your performance falls short. Telecommuters are expected to meet the same productivity standards as staffers who work in the office.
* Be flexible. If your boss wants you to report to the office once a week for a staff meeting, don't fight it.
Trends and Anomies
Telecommuting experts believe that working from home is an emerging trend in the workplace of the 1990s, not just a flash in the pan. With advances in computer and telecommunications technology, people can perform more and more jobs from home.
"It's not just women with kids sitting behind the keyboard," says Gordon, the telecommuting guru. "Many more men are becoming interested in it, too."
But not even telecommuting's staunchest backers envision a future littered with empty office buildings and urban ghost towns. The reason? A basic human need to talk, meet, and gossip with fellow workers face to face. Gordon predicts that no more than 5 to 10 percent of the nation's work force will telecommute at any one time.
"Telecommuting is not about working at home," Gordon says. "It's about decentralizing the workplace. For the right people and the right reasons, it has tremendous value."