Telecommuting: the new workplace trend.
IT'S MONDAY, 8 A.M., AND CHANDRA PIKES begins her daily commute to work. She strolls from her bedroom to her dining room-cum-office and turns on her computer. As it boots up, she heads to the front door for the newspaper. Fifteen minutes later, showered and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Pikes is in front of her computer--her commute complete.
The 29-year-old software architect used to wake up at 7 a.m. and fight 20 minutes of traffic to get to her office at the Texas Department of Human Services. Now, working from her Austin apartment, Pikes has joined the growing legion of telecommuters who are connected to their offices by a computer. Fueled by new technology and the tremendous growth of the information industry, telecommuting is predicted to become the office environment of the future.
Yet, telecommuting is nothing new, according to Jack Nilles, author of Making Telecommuting Happen: A Guide for Telemanagers and Telecommuters (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, $24.95). "Before the industrial revolution, everyone worked from home," he says. Back then, industry brought workers into major cities and America's workforce became centralized. Today, the tide is turning again as computer sales rival those of televisions. As more people flock to the suburbs and more rural landscapes, working outside of the office is now commonplace.
While companies have to absorb the installation and training costs associated with telecommuting (in some cases even buying the computers), they're also reaping long-term benefits, such as reduced operating expenses and office leasing fees. More importantly, telecommuting can result in greater productivity, allowing employees the flexibility and comfort of working from the environment of their choice. Telecommuting is also environmentally-friendly since it means less traffic.
According to a recent survey by IDC/Link, a New York-based consulting and market research firm, nearly 8 million people telecommuted last year, making them the fastest growing segment of home workers. Nilles, who coined the term "telecommuting" in 1973, estimates that by the end of the century some 20 million employees will telecommute.
Why telecommuting? One main reason is the flexibility it gives employees. When her co-workers found out that Pikes would be telecommuting, some of them wondered aloud, "How do we know you'll really be working from home?" Pikes shot back, "How do you know I'm working at work?" Pikes was one of 10 employees selected to participate in a telecommuting pilot program. Six months into the program, she was wondering why she hadn't done it sooner
"I love it," says Pikes. "I was amazed at how much I could get done. I am so much more focused. There are fewer distractions." There are also results. Last year, Pikes was assigned to develop software for pharmaceutical vendors with a deadline of July 1996; by early February, the project was finished.
Charles Holley, project leader for the pilot program, says it's important to evaluate a person before offering them the option of telecommunting. "We tried to limit it to the type of jobs suitable to telecommuting," says Holley, who decided the best can&dates were workers who didn't need a lot of person-to-person contact. "Generally telecommuting is better geared to people like computer programmers. People who have to attend a lot of meetings wouldn't make good telecommuters," he explains.
According to Nilles, the occupations most suitable for full-time, home-based telecommuting include architect, data entry clerk, graphic artist, journalist, telemarketer. civil engineer, realtor. stock broker, applications programmer and financial analyst. "It should be done on a volunteer basis," he advises. "No one should be forced into it, and the moment someone wants to stop telecommuting, they should be allowed to."
Yet, there are some drawbacks to telecommuting. Although it offers workers the privilege of choosing their own work environment, it can also produce feelings of isolation. A young, single person may require a more social environment than someone in their mid-30s with a family. For Pikes, conquering the isolation hurdle means being actively involved with her sorority and church. She also takes a two-mile walk in the middle of the day.
Working from home often means being confined to one space. "I have to get out of the house. If I didn't, I'd go crazy," says Pikes, who also guards against overworking. "At work you take breaks: walking breaks, lunch breaks, snack breaks. At home, if I don't get up from my computer for my walk at noon, I'd work straight through lunch without realizing it." Sometimes, she also returns to her computer at midnight when an idea pops into her head. "You wouldn't think about driving to the office at midnight to do some work, but I figure I'm here."
One thing Pikes doesn't miss is office gossip and meetings at the water cooler- permanent fixtures of corporate America. However, telecommuting doesn't mean cutting ties with the office. In fact, Holley encourages employees in his pilot program to maintain a buddy system. "There should be someone in their group they can contact regularly," he says. "It's important that they remain an interactive part of the group." To stay connected, Pikes places a telephone call to her supervisor and various co-workers daily. She also goes into the office every Thursday for a team meeting. By showing up only one day a week, Pikes saves $60 a month in clothing, dry-cleaning and gasoline costs.
For Atlanta-area resident William B. Hill Jr., a litigation attorney with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, telecommuting is a godsend. With the view of the Olympic Village from his 23rd floor office window, Hill says getting to work during the Games will be nearly impossible. Olympics' officials estimate that some 2.5 million people will converge on the area this July. Add that to the more than 2 million people who live there and you have a commuter's nightmare.
The 44-year-old Hill is no stranger to telecommuting. Last year, before Hill left his job as Fulton County superior court judge, he often conducted legal research in the wee hours of the night from home. "It was great. The only problem was that I kept finding myself up until 2:30 in the morning. Once you get into something, you just want to keep going," he says. "I found my productivity went way up. The telephone wasn't ringing, and I didn't have attorneys coming in and asking me questions."
Nonetheless, Hill doesn't plan to be a full-time telecommuter. A self-described "people person," Hill says he thrives on interoffice relationships. As a trial attorney, he has to make frequent trips to the courthouse. But Hill won't hesitate to telecommute when there is an ice storm or something special such as the Olympics.
SECURE SKILLED EMPLOYEES
Another reason why telecommuting is so attractive is that it allows employers to hold on to highly skilled workers. "Many companies, if they want a person bad enough, are willing to make concessions," says Linda Giavia, manager of commercial services at Productive Data Systems, a computer and information services consulting company in Denver. One Omaha, Neb.-based company, she recalls, was having trouble attracting quality employees until Giavia suggested they use a staff of telecommuters based in Denver. In talent-starved areas, telecommuting can dramatically increase productivity and reduce operation costs for companies, she says.
While many firms are still experimenting with telecommuting, Atlanta will move to the forefront during this summer's Olympic Games. "We're getting a lot of calls every day from corporations asking for help," says Frank Boyd, president of the Metro Atlanta Telecommuting Advisory Council and head of the telecommuting project at Georgia Power.
Boyd is ready to offer short-term solutions, but he encourages companies to take a long-term look at telecommuting. "There's always going to be something. Whether it's the Super Bowl, political or other business conventions, we're going to continue to have these types of events in town," he says.
Georgia Power, which received the 1995 Innovation Award from the National Telecommuting Advisory Council, first implemented a telecommuting project in 1992 to reduce air pollution. The project, which began with 14 development employees working from home, resulted in annual savings of more than $100,000 in leased office space.
Today, Georgia Power has about 80 telecommuting employees who take their office computers home or to a satellite work center. The main cost to Georgia Power was the one-time installation of second telephone lines. This price was minimal compared with the benefits. Not only does office space now cost less, but there's been a reduction in sick leave, parking requirements and employee turnover.
Small businesses and start-ups save as well, says Marcel Leonard, project manager for Marco Design Group, an environmental engineering firm in Detroit. Leonard applauds telecommuting. For the past two years, many of his employees who own laptop computers have been working out of the office, communicating via e-mail and attached files. This has worked out so well that Leonard plans to purchase 15 NEC 2000D laptops, at a bulk-rate discount of $1,500 each, for his other employees.
"The venture capital needed to start a design consulting business can be $50,000 and up," says Leonard. Through telecommuting, start-ups save the money they would otherwise spend on leased office space, maintenance and support staff. "Telecommuting, not only gives me mobility, but it levels the playing field," Leonard adds. He and a team of other civil engineers in other areas are able to work together on a project without being together under one roof. With such talent at his fingertips, Leonard is better able to compete with larger firms for projects.
Yet, despite the high acclaim for telecommuting, many employers are apprehensive. The traditional style of management doesn't work with telecommuting, and many managers fear letting go of the reins. There's often a lack of trust. "Managers are afraid of the increasing flow of information. They don't want to give up control," Leonard says.
Managers must start to think outside the box, Nilles agrees. "The fundamental barrier to telecommuting is between managers' ears. We have to train telecommuters and telemanagers," he says. There is no room for the "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" theory of management. If you trust your employees, Nilles points out, they will do their jobs, whether or not you are physically there. Employees expect managers to provide competent direction and guidance, reward them for work well done--and penalize them for work poorly performed. That's why it's best to have only the more established workers telecommute.
When it comes to telemanaging, it's also important to consider the work site and equipment. If someone's home environment is not set up for telecommuting, there's another option--a telework center, an office site designed for telecommuters. Check with local city officials to see if these sites are available near you.
Another key point for proper telemanaging is quality communication--and that's more than just placing a daily telephone call, says Nilles. One tried-and-true communications instrument is electronic mail. With e-mail, managers and telecommuters can exchange precise instructions and maintain a dialogue. Regardless of how you do it, the bottom line is that you must maintain frequent communication so that the telecommuter still feels like part of the team. "You have to have the full support of the manager or it just won't work," warns Holley.
What managers shouldn't do, says Boyd, is try to use telecommuting as positive discipline. "If a person is struggling or not getting the job done, a manager shouldn't offer them telecommuting, thinking this might help turn things around," he says.
After selecting workers you believe fit the profile of a telecommuter, and who have expressed a willingness to do so, you need to set up performance criteria. This criteria should be determined by the managers and telecommuters. "They should build a business case and sign an agreement on what to expect," says Boyd. "That agreement should say that if at any time either party, the manager or the employer, says it's not working, then the telecommuter should come back into the office."
It's also important to know local and federal income tax laws and how they impact working from home. For free information, contact the IRS and request Publication number 587, Business Use of Your Home.
For more information on telecommuting, two helpful books include, Nilles' Making Telecommuting Happen ($24.95; 800-842-3636); and Telecommuting: A Manager's Guide to Flexible Work Arrangements, by Joel Kugelmass (Lexington Books, $25; 800-956-7739).
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|Title Annotation:||Technology and You|
|Author:||Corbett, Merlisa Lawrence|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1996|
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