Telecommuting Is a Long-Distance Relationship
It's all the rage but it takes careful planning to make it work
In 1998, media-relations specialist Cindy Nelson got a flattering offer
from a small Philadelphia public-relations firm. The 20-person operation
was so eager to snap her up that it let Nelson, who lives in Gaithersburg,
Md., 150 miles away, become its only full-time telecommuter. It seemed
like a great idea. Spared commuting and office interruptions, she became
much more productive. And she loved the flexibility.
Dillusionment soon set in, though. As the lone telecommuter, Nelson
wasn't linked to the office instant-mail system. She couldn't fax
papers from home, and transferring files by E-mail was a headache.
Worst of all, out of sight meant out of mind. Graphics staff forgot
to send her materials for review, and she was the last to hear of
office developments. After 11 frustrating months, she fled to an
office job, where she can arrive after rush hour and work occasionally
at home. "It's a happy medium," she says. "I enjoyed the opportunity
to telecommute, but it's not that easy."
Telecommuting is hot among businesses small and large. The number of
telecommuters is growing by 15% a year, according to a 1997 study
by research firm FIND/SVP. Another study by International Data Corp./LINK
found that of about 9.1 million telecommuters in the U.S., more than 65%
work for companies with fewer than 100 employees. It isn't hard to find
glowing claims for the virtues of avoiding the office. Jack Nilles, telecommuting
pioneer and president of the consultancy JALA International, surveyed supervisors
at his client companies and government agencies, who contended telecommuters
are 15% to 20% more productive at home than in the office. Other advantages
they cited were better employee retention and lower space requirements.
HOST OF ISSUES. Yet, Nelson's story is not atypical. GartnerGroup,
an information technology consulting and research firm, estimates that
half of all remote-work programs fail in some respects in the initial stages.
"People think: 'What's the big problem? You just tell people to work at
home,'" says Nilles. "But if you don't think out the logistics and the
technology and you don't teach supervisors to manage those workers effectively,
you might fail."
Getting such arrangements right from the start is especially critical
for small businesses, which seldom have extra people to fill in if communication
breaks down, be it for human or technical reasons. Moreover, telecommuting
raises a host of other personnel and financial issues that can burden managers
in small companies more than those in large ones. For example, does the
company pay for equipment or phone lines an employee needs to work at home?
If so, how do you recoup that investment -- or the equipment -- if the
person quits? If one manager hates dealing with telecommuters, does the
chief executive end up mediating disputes, something mid-level staff might
handle at a large company?
Entrepreneurs need to carefully assess whether telecommuting is right
for their companies -- and under what circumstances. The decision to allow
it shouldn't be ad hoc. First, make sure you have a sound business reason
for permitting telecommuters: Is it a way to accommodate one or two valued
employees? Or will you extend it broadly to lure new staff? Is the idea
to expand without moving to a bigger office? If so, where do telecommuters
work when they come in? Each business reason has implications for a telecommuting
policy. "Don't just do it because it's technologically trendy," says Gil
Gordon, a top telecommuting consultant.
If you forge ahead, start slowly, Gordon advises, with one or two experienced
and trusted workers working from home one or two days a week. Be prepared
to invest in adequate technology and to suffer a shakedown period. The
more complex your telecommuters' jobs, the more access they'll need
to office applications and files. Their home computers have to run software
that can handle that material efficiently or your telecommuter will end
up creating extra work for those in the office -- hardly the idea.
COMMUNICATIONS COSTS. At a minimum, telecommuters will
need an extra phone line and a modem. A company with fewer than 25 employees
may be able to manage with a simple LAN and 56K modems for remote staff,
allowing access to the Internet and the company system, says Nilles. Your
telecommuters may need ISDN lines if they have to send a lot of data or
video, he adds, while people who do computer graphics might need something
as sophisticated as a T1 line. Don't assume that telecommuting will
produce huge equipment savings. Few staffers will spend several thousand
dollars to upgrade a low-level home system to one that can meet sophisticated
business standards entirely on their own dime. And you'll need a system
for reimbursing employees for phone costs.
Surprisingly, only about half of companies with telecommuters pick up
the full tab for setting them up at home, some surveys show. Such stinginess
may be penny wise and pound foolish. The rationale for making employees
foot the bill is that it's less expensive and eliminates the risk of equipment
loss, says Nilles. "This is often spurious since it ignores the cost of
[technical] support for telecommuters who might have great diversity in
their equipment," he adds. Employers can force workers to insure home-based
equipment, he adds, but at the risk of hurting the trust between telecommuters
and their distant managers -- the linchpin of a successful relationship.
The Ohio Society of CPAs is one organization that requires telecommuters
to purchase their own equipment, but softens the blow with an interest-free
loan program. J. Clarke Price, the society's president and CEO, embraced
telecommuting two years ago because "in today's environment, all employers
look for what gives them an edge." Now, 14 of his 45 employees primarily
work at home.
Freedom, it isn't: Price's employees who work at home have to check
their voice mail four times a day and their E-mail three times. Still,
they're highly motivated. "Productivity has gone through the roof," he
says. Where once he got his last E-mails at 6 p.m., now he gets them from
telecommuters at midnight. "We've had to make sure they establish parameters
so they don't work continuously," he says.
OFF THE RADAR. For all their hard work, telecommuters often feel
underappreciated, and with reason. Price recalls that one day he realized
that "my communications director had fallen off my radar screen." Price
used to amble into her office to discuss what was "rumbling around" in
his mind. After she went off-site, he only sought her input when he'd come
to a conclusion. Now, he goes out of his way to E-mail or phone her sooner.
That's the kind of dynamic that managers can't ignore. Unfortunately,
managers who would just as soon have workers close by may not care to correct
such problems. "If supervisors aren't comfortable with employees being
out of sight, the program will fail," says John Girard, a vice president
and research director of GartnerGroup. Have your managers and telecommuters
agree in advance on performance measures, schedules, and deadlines. "It
becomes evident quickly how good your managers are," says consultant Gordon.
Many telecommuters feel they have to bend over backward to prove they're
trustworthy. Managers must resist any inclination to paranoia with their
staffs dispersed. "I felt I was overcompensating by working extra, and
that put extra stress on me," says Kim Stilson, who as marketing director
for a financial services firm in Salt Lake City worked at home three days
a week and in the office two. Her boss demonstrated his doubts: One morning,
when she was working in pajamas with uncombed hair and no makeup, he knocked
unexpectedly on the front door. "I was bright red," she recalls.
Telecommuting also tests workers' ability to draw a firm line between
family and work. As anyone who has ever tried to work and babysit at the
same time knows, someone needs to be in full control of the children during
"office hours." Working parents also require a place to work where their
papers won't be disrupted after they log off.
Stilson had a nanny when she worked at home, and even so, she sometimes had to walk down the
street with her portable phone to have a business conversation without baby wails in the background.
She found a new job with more opportunity, and she doesn't telecommute yet. "I'm working to
prove myself, and then I'll ask if I can telecommute -- so I can get more done and balance my life more," she says. As she discovered,
telecommuting offers new possibilities for balance -- but it's no panacea.
By Meg Lundstrom in New York