The case for and against allowing it

CorrespondentDecember 19, 2010 

  • Telecommunications represents a major corporate commitment at Cisco Systems, which has a large campus in RTP. Last year, it completed a study of several thousand employees to evaluate the social, economic and environmental effect of telecommuting. Overall, Cisco found that its employees achieved better work performance and quality of life as tele commuters.

    Cisco also noted that it had generated annual savings of $277 million in productivity by allowing employees to telecommute.

    Some of its findings:

    Employees spend about 63 percent of their time communicating.

    About 40 percent of its employees are not located in the same city as their manager.

    The average employee telecommutes two days a week.

    About 60 percent of the time saved by telecommuting is spent working, with the balance on personal time.

    Two-thirds of those surveyed said that their work improved.

    Four out of five respondents reported an improved quality of life as a result of telecommuting.

  • Have a dedicated place, preferably a separate room in your home or apartment, for an office. It's not a good idea to have an office near the family TV set.

    Make sure there's someone to take care of young children. Effective telecommuters cannot do double duty as baby-sitters.

    Forget about the overgrown lawn, some dead tree limbs, and a leaky faucet. Tend to these home chores in off hours or weekends, not during the workweek.

    When working at home, it's easy to become a round-the-clock worker. Make sure you take breaks. Go out and have lunch.

    Set a workday schedule, and try to stick with it. Some telecommuters work erratic schedules, but the more effective ones have a workday that is similar to the one they had at the office.

    Avoid being a home office recluse. Telecommuters should meet with associates and friends for coffee breaks or lunch.

    If you're a member of a professional or business group, continue to attend meetings. This is a good way to interact with others. .

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.

rkotterbourg@gmail.com or 919-489-9591

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