Telecommuting is more than just working at home
By Kim Delmar Cory
As director of development for a small non-profit organization in North Carolina and a perennial workaholic, Mercer Tyson often worked late when impending grant deadlines loomed. One evening in November 1999, while walking to her car after a long workday, Tyson was the victim of an attempted mugging. Though she wasn't physically harmed in the attack, the experience unnerved her to the extent that she vowed to begin leaving work at a reasonable hour. To that end, Tyson set up a home office, which would give her the freedom to finish her work in the safety of her own home.
Although Tyson's intent was to work in her office daily and telecommute after hours, she soon embraced the benefits of telecommuting. "Over the next couple of months, seeing how wonderful it was not to have to fight for a parking space or worry about my personal safety, I gradually began working from home more and more," says Tyson. "I currently telecommute four days out of five - I have one in office day each week," she explains.
Likewise, Mary Beth Swibes quickly discovered the rewards of telecommuting. Swibes, a systems consultant at Sears and Roebuck who has worked from her home in Illinois two days a week for three years, eliminates a four hour round-trip drive on the days she works from home. "...In the evenings, I can close the door at 4:00 and be home at 4:01," says Swibes, the mother of four.
Tyson's and Swibe's experiences defy the notion that telecommuters are women parked in front of their TVs who wear fluffy pink bunny skippers and munch on bon-bons as they make direct marketing phone calls. The Midwest Institute for Telecommuting Education (MITE), an organization that offers products and services to help companies implement telecommuting work arrangements, defines telecommuting as working off-site for an outside employer at least one day per month.
According to MITE, 15.7 million people telecommuted in the United States in 1998, a 41% from 1997. And about two-thirds of Fortune 500 firms employ people in telecommuting positions.
According to Fortune.com, as of November 1999, 11 million Americans telecommuted to their jobs at least one day per month. MITE projects that, this year, 20 million workers will telecommute, a considerable increase from the 3.4 million telecommuters in 1990. The Washington D.C.-based Employment Policy Foundation estimates that by 2004, about 25% of the U.S. workforce will telecommute to their jobs.
Does this mean the end of rousing Ally McBeal discussions around the water cooler among colleagues every Tuesday morning? How do co-workers stay in touch? And how do other employees feel about co-workers telecommuting? Reactions vary. Kym, a Los Angeles-based desktop publisher and four year veteran of full-time telecommuting claims, "Many...people within my current company do telecommute....We have gotten very good at communicating via e-mail, faxes, telephone, and overnight delivery. In fact, despite most of us only seeing each other once a year, we are a very tight knit team and work extremely well together."
If you telecommute, you'll probably be the one who has to make an extra effort to stay in contact with your office colleagues, yet telecommuting doesn't automatically mean you'll never see your co-workers. "A lot of people think telecommuting is an all or nothing deal," says Robert Moskowitz, president of the Washington D.C.-based American Telecommuting Association. Moskowitz claims typical commuting hours are in the ballpark of 18-19 hours per week.
Nonetheless, isolation can be intimidating for some home workers. To help ensure success for employees considering making the switch, Merrill Lynch holds a two-week simulation lab for potential telecommuters where the workers can only contact colleagues via phone or e-mail.
In contrast to those who tout telecommuting as the up and coming form of employment, accommodating the craving for flexibility in today's society, some claim otherwise. Christena Nippert-Eng, sociology professor at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, claims 1 in 5 telecommuting arrangements fail. Some people miss working with their office mates while some find everyday distractions like a barking dog or beckoning household chores problematic.
Kym, the desktop publisher from Los Angeles, was among those who initially struggled with working in their home environment. "At first, the biggest challenge was to actually sit down and start working-I didn't have the discipline," she claims. Sue Harrington, a meeting planner in Sacramento, Calif. who has telecommuted two days a week for eight years, had the opposite problem. "It was hard for me to stop working," she recalls. "There's always so much to do and never enough time, so I had to make it a point to shut my home office door after hours." Whichever side of the fence you're on, self-discipline and the ability to structure your work time are essential survival elements for the telecommuter.
In addition to asking yourself if you have the right stuff to become a telecommuter, it's important to assess your career goals and life goals. If you want to climb the corporate ladder, as a telecommuter, you may be overlooked when the promotion wand whisks through your company. Some experts claim that if you're striving for promotion, you might better accomplish your goal by attending meetings and making sure supervisors readily recognize you. Others maintain that if, as a telecommuter, you demonstrate quality work, high productivity and excel in your home office environment, you might stand out to your employer more than an on-site worker might.
On the other hand, if you're secure in your position and are more interested in quality-of-life issues, telecommuting may be your dream come true. With no commute, you'll have more time with your family, and if you telecommute full-time, transportation and wardrobe expenses will plummet. An added bonus, chuckles meeting planner Sue Harrington, is that "You get to do your laundry or bake during your lunch hour!"
Not all employers are keen on telecommuting, and even those that embrace it face the nagging dilemma of adequate supervision from afar. "When I first started (telecommuting), my boss didn't like it," claims Kym. "She felt like she wouldn't have the control over me. But she eventually adapted." In fact, many companies that support telecommuting don't allow employees who have been with the company less than six months to telecommute. A bond of trust between you and supervisor must first be established at the on-site work environment in order to make the transition to telecommuting successful.
Employers who are skittish about telecommuting may have to become more flexible, says Development Director Mercer Tyson. "With the low unemployment rate and difficulty finding and retaining good employees, (companies need to) think outside the box!" With her successful telecommuting experience under her belt, Tyson can say with some authority that, "Telecommuting is a 'perk' you can offer that costs the employer little, yet can really boost employee morale and productivity."