WORKING AT HOME--THE RIGHT WAY TO BE A STAR IN YOUR BUNNY SLIPPERS NEARLY NINE MILLION U.S. WORKERS HAVE BECOME TELECOMMUTERS, AND MANY OF THEM ARE STAYING ON TOP OF THEIR JOBS AND GETTING PROMOTED. HERE'S HOW THEY DO IT.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Sure, working at home can be good for your health. No horn-honking commute to add stress, no germ-laden recirculated air to keep that flu virus incubating, and no harsh fluorescent lighting to wear away your retinal tissue. If you've got kids, it can also be good for your family life. You'll never miss another school pageant, and you can finally become the soccer parent of your dreams.
But what about your career? That's a much trickier question. Telecommuting presents fewer opportunities for sucking up to various Pooh-Bahs at the office, an essential component for getting ahead at some companies. And being out of sight and out of mind can have its drawbacks. Witness the telecommuting engineer at Bell Labs who missed an important last-minute meeting because no one told her about it. Or the homebound research analyst who wasn't among the chosen when his boss was awarding promotions. "It seemed like you weren't around much," the boss explained.
But working at home doesn't have to be a one-way ticket to corporate palookaville. You can still succeed at your job while gazing out over a row of potted petunias in the backyard. One study done in 1993 for the Small Business Administration found that telecommuters actually get promoted at greater rates than nontelecommuters. And there are plenty of signs that working at home is getting to be more acceptable at more companies. Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant based in New Jersey, estimates that at least two-thirds of FORTUNE 500 companies currently employ telecommuters. New York-based research firm Find/SVP puts the total number of telecommuters at almost nine million, more than double the number in 1990.
The trend is taking off at some household-name companies, which view telecommuting as a cost saver. IBM, for example, used to maintain a surplus of office space, occupying more offices than there were employees. Now the company's gone mobile, with employees telecommuting, "hoteling" (being assigned to a desk via a reservations system), and "hot-desking" (several people using the same desk at different times). About 10,000 employees now share offices with four people, on average, although we suspect that CEO Lou Gerstner won't walk in and find someone hoteling in his corner suite.
To figure out whether you should start working at home more--or less--consider the following factors.
The right job. Many telecommuting consultants insist that nearly all of today's white-collar jobs have some component that can be done as well or better outside the office. Yet certain jobs lend themselves more easily to telecommuting than others. Positions that require a lot of independent work, such as sales, and some kinds of consulting, writing, and research analysis, are a natural fit. People whose jobs require numerous unscheduled meetings with co-workers, such as those held by many managers, present more problems. Some companies explicitly state that they don't want managers telecommuting. Travelers Insurance Cos., for instance, encourages telecommuting in jobs where the need to manage is minimal or nonexistent.
But telecommuting as a manager is not impossible. Though it's generally assumed that face time with employees is essential, too many meetings with the boss can be harmful. Ed Kirk, vice president of the consulting firm Telecommuting Inc., suggests that managers ask themselves whether they get more work done when their boss is out of the office. "Everyone says yes, but no one wants to assume that they're getting in other people's hair," says Kirk. Once the sting of realizing that your employees don't need you 24 hours a day eases, you, as a manager, might understand how you could benefit from being out of the office a couple of days a week. Most studies show that people's strategic planning skills go up dramatically when they telecommute because there's uninterrupted time to think clearly. "Who needs that more than managers?" asks Kirk.
Managing remotely can also work well if you're directing a team of senior-level employees. Claudia Baker, a global director of business development at IBM, manages a group of 25 people she sees in person only once every few months. She says mobility has worked for her because her employees depend on her for big-picture direction--not day-to-day instruction. "It would be a real deterrent if I had young people who needed guidance and counseling. It would be pretty hard for me to be there all the time for them to bounce ideas off," says Baker, who splits her time between traveling and working from her home in Boca Raton, Florida.
The right person. Working at home isn't for everybody. It's not just compulsive snackers who should think twice. ("Some people should not work under the same roof as their refrigerator," warns Gordon.) The best telecommuters can motivate themselves easily and have been at their job long enough to have established solid relationships with co-workers. E-mail can't substitute for impromptu meetings at the water cooler or one-minute pitch sessions in the elevator with someone you've been trying to catch all week.
The right reason. Although telecommuting had its genesis in work-family flexibility programs of the early Eighties, many telecommuting consultants advise that you shouldn't work at home primarily because you want to be there when Suzy charges home from school. Rather, make the decision based on whether you think you can be more productive at your job by working out of the office at least a couple of days a week. Studies show that people feel that they are anywhere from 5% to 20% more productive when they work at home, simply because there are fewer distractions. Nobody's stopping by to reenact the recent Bulls game or boast about a winning weekend at the riverboat casino. Says Gil Gordon: "It's like the old saying that the hospital is a terrible place to get healthy. The office is a terrible place to do work."
The right boss. Whether you get duly rewarded for the hard work you do at home depends on your boss. You could be at home discovering cures for lethal diseases, but unless your boss recognizes your labors and shines the light upon you when you're not there to do it yourself, working at home won't be much of an asset to your career. "There's certainly plenty of companies in which managers are nervous about the idea of remote supervision," remarks Franklin Becker, director of the international workplace studies program at Cornell. A nervous boss can become a jealous, spiteful, and untrusting one--someone who's going to be suspicious that you're home cradling a bag of Doritos and watching the Rosie O'Donnell Show.
Jan Smith, a creative director in corporate marketing at Hewlett-Packard who works at home two days a week, wasn't sure at first how her boss would react to her telecommuting. Every day when Smith arrived in her office (down the stairs from the bedroom), she would call her boss to let her know that she'd arrived. Smith would also E-mail her boss twice a day with lengthy updates on her work. After about a month of this communication avalanche, Smith's boss let her know it wasn't necessary to be so diligent and that she trusted Smith completely. But Smith was onto something. Sending a few extra E-mails and voice mails can go a long way toward overcoming the distance of telecommuting and letting your superiors know how much work you're doing. Who knows? You might even find that you're schmoozing more with your boss than your office-bound co-workers.
But beware of traditional command-and-control bosses, who are unlikely to deal well with telecommuting employees. In those cases, you basically have two choices. Stay in the office or find a new boss.
The right company. Technology is what makes working at home possible. A company with telecommuters needs to make a considerable investment in new technology so that employees can do their jobs no differently at home than they would in the office. This entails more than just a few new laptops. Among the essentials: a telephone system and computer servers that allow mobile employees access to things like company files, telephone listings, and, of course, the softball team game schedule.
Not all companies are willing to make this technological commitment, particularly if there isn't a large group of employees telecommuting. And not all companies are equally generous about covering the costs of the equipment and facilities you'll need in a home office. Many companies cover the cost of a new phone or fax line, but not computers and fax machines. At Hewlett-Packard, for instance, telecommuters have to buy new computer equipment. GTE will spring for office systems and equipment only when it doesn't duplicate what employees use at work.
Your company's wholehearted commitment to telecommuting also means hiring additional technology support staff so that, when your home computer crashes in the middle of a four-page E-mail to an irascible new client, you have someone to hyperventilate with. And, to address the inevitable employee discomfort with telecommuting, the ideal company will have some system in place to educate managers on how to work with telecommuters. Travelers, for instance, gives orientation programs for telecommuters and their managers. The company also gives sessions for co-workers who do not telecommute. The more investment in management training, the better the chance that your boss will give you rightful praise for all that hard work you do in your bunny slippers.