You can go home again. (telecommuting) (Special Anniversary Issue)
by Daniel Janal
How would you like to escape the perilous drive to work and still not miss the excitement and intrigue of office politics? Why not convince your boss to let you do some work at home? After all, the commute is about 30 second, and you get to see your kids grow up.
These days, over 5 million workers telecommute, according to Link Resources, a New York-based think tank. Not to be confused with the self-employed, telecommuters make arrangements with their employers to divide work time between office and home. Arrangements can vary from working mostly at the office to working mostly at home - or somewhere in between.
Telecommuters can be as much as 20 percent more productive than full-time office workers, according to a study conducted by the state of California, which has its own telecommuting policies. Brad Schepp, who has documented the phenomenon in his book, The Telecommuter's Handbook (Pharos Books, $9.95), says telecommuting can not only enhance the quality of your life, it can also benefit your employer.
Large Corporations such as Pacific Bell, Apple Computer, AT&T, and JC Penny offer telecommuting as an option for certain employees. Their efforts have paved the way for other companies to formalize policies. "Everything in the program is clearly spelled out," Schepp says, "who can telecommute, how they stay in touch with coworkers and supervisors, and how the company applies workmen's compensation laws."
Such companies aren't the norm, however. Some 90 percent of companies that offer telecommuting do so informally. Mid-level managers don't want to involve top management and the inherent red tape that follows. Telecommuting goes against the grain. MBA programs don't condone it, and employers are only beginning to understand the unique problems of two-income households. You might have to shop around to find a company that's interested in having employees telecommute. That type of of company will make it worthwhile.
Other issues that make companies reluctant to offer telecommuting are providing workmen's compensation for accidents at home, managing numerous off-site employees, and determining the best candidates to work at home.
The best telecommuters tend to be those employees who have good working relationships with their supervisors, have been with the company for a long time, can work independently, are good communicators, and are proven performers. And some positions are better suited than others to telecommuting. Computer programmers, writers, translators, sales reps, stockbrokers, and attorneys, to name a few, fall into that category.
Schepp says the best telecommuters are "information specialists" in jobs that involve three basic stages: research, execution, and presentation. For instance, an architect meets with a client to discuss house plans, goes home to sketch out the blueprints, and then meets with the client again for a presentation.
Schepp says that it's in the second stage, when the work is produced, that telecommuting can be most effective. "That's where you need solitude. You need space and peace to do the best possible job," he says.
Because interaction is limited, the person must become adept at communicating with coworkers and supervisors and work harder to stay in touch via fax, E-mail, and the phone. "You've got to do what you can to ward of feelings o isolation," Schepp says.
Successful telecommuting programs aren't made in heaven, however; they're written on paper, with the guidelines spelled out and paths and tasks clearly defined. Schepp advises companies to hire specialists to set up programs for telecommuting. "They can help you avoid the mistakes other companies have made," he says, "and they can hold your hand through the entire process."
That workstyle isn't for everyone, however. Some 20 percent of telecommuters eventually return to the office or various reasons, often because of an inability to concentrate.
If telecommuting sounds like your answer, Schepp advises you to start slowly. "You'll find it's a learning process. You may find you aren't as productive at first - you have to get used to distractions or not having a support staff or a copy machine. You have to get used to other ways of communicating with people. And you show up at the office fairly often."
Showing up is fine - as long as you can go home.