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Moving the work to the workers: while telecommuting and telework are huge trends, Alaska may be the Last Frontier for virtual offices.

If the real Alaska is just 20 minutes outside Anchorage, then Susan and Matthew Teel and their three children are right out in it. At their home in Chugiak, a little more than 20 miles from downtown, the Teels can watch the moose browse in the yard while they home-school their kids. They believe that the little bit of distance provides a much better atmosphere for their family than the busy suburbia and urban core of the city.

Like many Alaskans, the Teels have adapted their working lives to their home lives so they can be more involved with their children. They do not commute twice daily to the city they work out of their home.

But what sets the Teels apart is the office equipment in their basement: eight computers, a sophisticated network, network server and the fastest, most expensive phone line in Chugiak. They're among the growing number of Alaskans who manage what amounts to a "virtual workplace."

"We thought about putting an office in town," says Susan Teel, "but we really don't need to." The Teels' company, Distributed Data Systems, maintains a server for World Wide Web clients, builds home pages and develops intranet and database integration solutions. "He's the technical wiz; the programmer, the database person- I do the graphics and HTML," Susan says.

She estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of their time might be spent meeting with clients, usually in the client's office. But it's not like clients aren't welcome at their home amidst a home-school day; the Teels manage a very flexible home-work day. "Nobody really seems to mind," Susan says. "If anything, they're a little jealous."

Moving the work to the worker through communications technology, whether it's called telecommuting, tele-working or defies an easy label, is a huge trend that's predicted to radically change the way we work. In professions from graphic design to medicine and education to government bureaucrats, if the work involves manipulating and conveying information, many believe the workplace will be the global communications network rather than a concrete and steel building.

One U.S. Government Services Administration report estimates more than 5 million Americans use an alternate workplace at least once a week, with most of those "telecommuting" between home and a private sector office. One telecommuting writer and consultant, Jack Nilles, writing on the home page of his company, JALA International, puts the number of telecommuters in the U.S. at 12.7 million and predicts it will double by the year 2000.

For Dave Laurance, director of business development for CTG and its 185 information technology employees here, "This is a topic that's near and dear to our hearts." The only factors that keep the flex-time workers from working at home, he says, are technology issues and the customer's wishes.

CTG employees develop computer applications and networks and other services, largely for oil industry companies, from work sites in Anchorage, Valdez, Fairbanks and the North Slope. They work from home, in clients' offices and in CTG offices, and often each workplace plays a role during a project. But with the goal of operating as a "virtual corporation," Laurance says, "CTG's only assets are its talents and its knowledge." With such an emphasis on the human resource, he adds, office buildings are an expensive and sometimes unproductive concession to convention.

"Our stated goal is to evolve into an organization where the office becomes a place to go for a meeting," Laurance says. For tasks requiring a lot of concentration, home is better for most employees, he says. "People have the tendency to work when they want to anyway."

Technology is driving the growth of telework and telecommuting, with advances in computer networking and in communications. But the social and emotional changes of leaving the workplace are as complex as the innovative machinery. In the congested parts of the country, remote work is one answer to air pollution, traffic congestion, valuable time wasted in transport and the high cost of putting offices in the business district. The payoffs can be dramatic: higher productivity and job satisfaction and a better quality of life for the employee; lower costs for the business.

The online Alaskan worker can receive all of those benefits, but it's quality of life and cost issues that come up first. "I love working at home," Susan Teel says. "It can be difficult because you can end up getting sidetracked," but she adds that they can also work late at night or whenever it suits them. "Certainly in Alaska I think it makes a lot of sense compared to getting in your car," she says, but it's the flexible schedule that counts the most. "This lets us keep our family as our priority," she says.

While advanced communications services can arguably help Alaskans more than most Americans by reducing the market and information barriers of the state's geography, Laurance is frustrated by the pace of progress here. "The thing that's keeping us from going to telecommuting faster here in Alaska is the lack of infrastructure," he says. "We see this as the real limiter of our business development here."

As an example, he cites delays in the introduction of high-bandwidth ISDN service in Anchorage - a service that will likely be eclipsed soon in the rest of the country. No ISDN, no desktop video conferencing, Laurance says, and that's a minimum requirement for taking the company to a truly virtual state. "Humans are a visual animal," Laurance explains, and one of the hardest things to give up about the office is the social experience.

"I'm not sure many people understand the criticality of these issues in Alaska," Laurance says of our public commitment to technology infrastructure. "This is going to happen, with or without Alaska."

For Susan and Matthew Teel, getting the second high-bandwidth phone line ever in Chugiak was their brush with Alaska's infrastructure. "It wasn't easy, believe me," Susan says. Their local phone company, the Matanuska Telephone Association, didn't really want to offer the service in their neck of the woods, she explains. But after one was installed for media coverage of the Arctic Winter Games, the Teels insisted.

Of the three phone companies it takes to reach a client in Anchorage, the MTA link from Chugiak to Eagle River is the most expensive, and nearly mined the numbers for working from home. "It just worked out that it was still a little cheaper to keep it here," she says.

Despite the challenges, she adds, "I think it's the way of the future, whether people like it or not.

"Sometimes I have to kind of pinch myself as a reminder of how good we have it."

RELATED ARTICLE: A Good Book for the Fast Lane

"The Telecommuter's Advisor: Working in the Fast Lane," by June Langhoff; Aegis Publishing Group, Ltd., Newport, Rhode Island; 1996; 240 pages; $14.95.

By Henry Holtzman

Telecommuting is more than a hot topic these days. It's boiling. Telecommuting has been a fact of life among the largest corporations for the past few years or more. More recently, mid-sized companies have discovered its cost and productivity advantages. Small firms virtually pioneered the concept when larger organizations began downsizing during the early 1980s.

Several excellent books about telecommuting have been released since 1989, though few are as packed with solid advice as "The Telecommuter's Advisor." It's brief on theory and long on tips and hints that are clearly based on the author's personal experience as well as the experiences of other telecommuters. These tips include everything from where in your home to locate your "home office" (behind a closed door is best, though not in a shared bedroom) to troubleshooting your computer problems.

One of the most fascinating portions of the book is the chapter "Staying Productive." Langhoff directly addresses personal concerns that are most often raised about telecommuting. Here are just a few samples:

"Kids ... don't for a minute consider combining telecommuting with caring for your children. You can't. It's impossible to divide your attention between your children and your work. Both will suffer. You'll need to set up some workrules for your children, or you'll go nuts.

"Elders ... many people successfully combine telecommuting with eldercare. If your live-in parent is bedridden, you'll need in-home help. You might look into an adult day activity program. Otherwise, you can use the same rules you use for your kids. Good luck enforcing them, however.

One concern of prospective telecommuters is that they will become "invisible" to their boss, with the possibility of jeopardizing their careers. The author addresses this issue head-on.

"Many telecommuters fear that they'll be overlooked for promotions and other perks, once they're out of sight. Though studies show that telecommuters actually get promoted more often than their in-office counterparts, the fear remains. The best way to conquer fear is to take charge."

The subsequent chapter dealing with working while on the road is so detailed and clear that it may, by itself, be worth the cost of buying the book.

"The Telecommuter's Advisor" is well-conceived and well-written. It answers most of the questions you may have about telecommuting, as well as some you never considered. The book even offers the names, addresses, and phone numbers of companies that can provide you with the upgrades you need to meet your individual telecommuting requirements.

The only flaw isn't the book's problem, but the technology's. Despite the growth of telecommuting, there are still sections of the U.S. where the desire to use the capability hasn't quite caught up to the availability of the communications technology. It's coming, though, faster than most people think. That's why reading "The Telecommuter's Advisor" is a good way to get ahead of the new era of workplaces that are physically mobile and remote from their workers.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Carroll, Ed
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Words:1629
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