For three years, Robert Sutton telecommuted part time from his Chapel Hill home to GlaxoSmithKline's Research Triangle Park offices.
Sutton, a communications specialist, would take his then-12-year-old daughter to school, and get to work about 9 a.m., somewhat later than other staffers.
"I'd work at the office until 2 p.m. when I returned to Chapel Hill, picked up my daughter after school, returned home, and then worked for the next two to three hours on GSK assignments," he said.
At GSK, what Sutton was doing is not called telecommuting. "We refer to it as a flexible work option," Sutton said. "All it takes is to get your manager's approval. Telecommuting proved to be a worthwhile personal experience. All my manager required is that I get my work done."
It's really not a big deal at most companies or governmental agencies to become a telecommuter. The process starts with the person's immediate supervisor. Some managers disapprove of telecommuting, whether full or part time. Like the general, they want to have their troops on immediate call and ready for duty. Other managers bend to their staff's needs, and to them the only thing that counts is meeting the department's goals.
Sutton is hardly an anomaly in the current corporate or government workplace where telecommuting is the antithesis of cartoon character Dilbert's cubicle lifestyle. About 2.5 million people, excluding the self-employed, work from home. Some studies estimate that up to 50 million American workers could easily telecommute to work, and it is expected that twice as many public sector employees as private sector workers will telecommute during the next several years.
Fueling this growth is the availability of computer and communications systems that give workers mobility and reduce the need to work from a corporate office. In most instances, workers use a company computer, and access a telephone with a number similar to the one in the central office. It's also a way for employers to reduce office space and costs.
A generation ago when telecommuting was still a relative pipe dream, it was considered a way to work in a more informal environment where dress codes and office protocols were dropped. This is no longer an issue since corporate America has switched to informal office attire, and the cubicle lifestyle has also become more relaxed.
Michael McGowan, an Environmental Protection Agency supervisor, said he wasn't sure whether the EPA had an official telecommuting policy.
"As a manager, I am definitely encouraged to offer that option," he said. "There are some programs that make more sense than others. People who do lots of online research, or who don't need face-to-face meetings to conduct their work are likely telecommuting candidates."
What works, what doesn't
As expected, there are telecommuting pros and cons.
The benefits include improvement in employee morale and effectiveness, lower employee turnover, elimination of commuting time, and accommodating short- and long-term health problems or family responsibilities.
The drawbacks include employees not sufficiently organized or motivated to work effectively on their own, the problems of supervising off-site workers and the isolation of working in a one-person office.
What's more, telecommuting is not a sound route to take for those with ambitions to become corporate managers; telecommuters have less visibility with top management.
"Telecommuters have to be pretty disciplined when their work schedule is in their hands," said Lori Thompson, a NCSU professor and a specialist in industrial organizational psychology.
"They need to take protective measures to avoid interruptions from other family members, particularly small children, and they often miss the camaraderie of the office," she added. "Depending on how visible their work is to peers, telecommuters may also face the perception that they are not working as hard as the rest of the team."
Protocol takes a back seat at some corporations and government agencies where the procedures to become a telecommuter are somewhat casual. Wannabe telecommuters at RTI, however, undergo more formal screening. The RTP-based consulting firm defines a telecommuter as an employee who works at least 75 percent of the time from a remote location.
Charles Kelly, a senior human resource director, said that RTI even hires people as telecommuters. This differs from the corporate norm where employees must first prove they are effective workers before getting the nod to telecommute.
"We are flexible on work hours for our telecommuters," Kelly said. "They can work in their bathrobes. All we care about is that they get their work done and that it is completed on time."
Telecommuter hopefuls sign an RTI agreement, which describes job duties, compensation, work location, schedule and required equipment. Each telecommuter receives an encrypted laptop for use on company assignments. In addition, they complete an eight-page questionnaire that covers such topics as level of accountability, work objectives, reporting work status to one's supervisor, and home office safety measures to protect work and equipment.
Productivity rises at home
Like many telecommuters, Trisha Lester, an 18-year veteran and vice president of the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, telecommutes on a split week basis.
"I try to work from home in Chapel Hill two days a week," Lester said. "There are some weeks when this is not possible. Working at home has increased my overall quality of life. I spend less time in my car and avoid a nearly 100-mile round trip to my Raleigh office.
"When I work from home, I find my productivity is quite high as I don't have the office interruptions, yet I couldn't telecommute every day because I would lose my connection to the people and the culture in the office," she said.
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