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Archive for Monday, May 20, 2002

Telecommuting gains support in the workplace

Fear of tragedy, emphasis on family create desire to operate from home

May 20, 2002

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Glenn Dickson started telecommuting out of necessity. There was no room at the office.

He remembers his boss telling him, "We need the space, and it will give you more time with your family."

That was more than 10 years ago. The Elk Grove, Calif., resident has been telecommuting ever since.

Telecommuters report that they are more productive, happier in their jobs and more loyal to their companies. But still, there hasn't been widespread acceptance of the practice.

That may change, however. The attacks on Sept. 11, anthrax scares and a heightened sense of the importance of balancing work and family are helping to increase the number of telecommuters, or teleworkers, as they are sometimes called.

The International Telework Association and Council estimated that 28.8 million Americans this year participate in some form of telework, a 16.5 percent increase over 2000 figures. The ITAC, however, counts any remote work as telework, depending on whether it is on the road, from a hotel or between colleagues in satellite centers. The traditional teleworkers, those who work from home, represent only about 22 percent of those workers; another 24 percent of that group work while traveling on business for the company.

Telework is most often the bastion of very small or very large companies, ITAC reported. Experts say that the biggest opposition to telework comes from managers afraid of losing control of their employees.

Mark Martella came up against that when he proposed telecommuting for his job at a local credit union. He made a proposal that was quickly rejected, he said, as the company came up with reasons why it wouldn't work. That's when he started looking for a new job that would allow him to telecommute.

He found it as an insurance consultant for a North Carolina company. He travels to Greensboro, N.C., three times a year, but the rest of the time he's working out of his Roseville, N.C., home office.

"My productivity has increased significantly," Martella said. "It's who I am. I've integrated it as a lifestyle. It could be 10 at night, and if I have some energy, I'll log onto the computer and I'll work."

Disasters create 'wake-up call'

When a wide-scale disaster occurs, there's always an increase in the demand for telework, said Vincent Ceriello, president of VRC Consulting Group in San Anselmo. Similarly, there was an increase in demand for telework after the Sept. 11 events. Some people are more anxious about coming into public spaces or crossing bridges. As a result, managers who balked at telework may have to consider it if they want to keep productive employees, Ceriello said.

"Cataclysmic events are the wake-up call we need from time to time," Ceriello said. "This one ... let us revisit whether we need to be as centralized as we are."

David Fleming, the telework program consultant for the state's Department of Personnel Administration, agrees.

"High-rise buildings came about when we didn't have the technology we do today," Fleming said. The Internet, he said, was developed for defense reasons, so that the Defense Department could decentralize targets, "but we've seemed to forget that," he said.

Now, though, people are rediscovering it as they realize that telework and the Internet can work for continuity planning and disaster recovery, he said.

With fear a factor in the telework equation, telecommuting will increase, Fleming predicted. Still, "There are good reasons to be in a conventional office, and we won't abandon it" completely.

Even the most telework-minded companies do have a central office. "We're a real company, we just don't see each other that often," said Steve Mauer, managing partner for PageWeavers LLC in Sacramento. All of the Web design company's five employees telecommute. The company also outsources work to people around the country.

"We bounce our ideas off each other over the Internet. I'll send an e-mail and say 'take a look at this.' And (my partner) clicks on it. It's more immediate than if I had to wait for someone to come back from lunch," Mauer said.

Worker needs vary

But the telework experience can be isolating. Just ask Michael Monroe, a telecom sales trainer in Elk Grove. Monroe, who says, "I don't have a desk anywhere but home," has been telecommuting for about nine months for a company based in Maryland.

Although he likes the freedom and the ability to focus that working at home affords him, he misses the companionship of co-workers.

"I wasn't prepared for the psychological loneliness," Monroe said.

"There's no camaraderie. You can't bounce ideas off people, things like that. You can do it by telephone and e-mail, but you don't have face to face input. It's really harder than I thought it would be."

Telework is the perfect job situation for Gina Sanabria, who works from her home in Queens, New York, for Resume.com.

In uncertain times like these, Sanabria said, she appreciates being home with her children. "I've never been so happy in my whole life," she said. "I love work, but I don't like going to offices."

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