Making call for flexibility

Telecommuting can be convenient, but it’s not for everyone

August 13, 2007


Solutions for the highway blues come in a dozen different flavors, but none sounds quite so tasty as telecommuting - that wonderful piece of business jargon that conjures up thoughts of lounging by the pool with a glass of iced tea in one hand and a laptop propped on your, well, lap.

No bosses hovering over your shoulder. No one reminding you to keep the office refrigerator clean. And no reason to remember where, exactly, you parked your car before coming into the office.

Of course there's more to it than that. And that's what companies are learning as they look to telecommuting as a tool to counter traffic nightmares.

Creating the ability to work without ever setting foot in the office brings with it advantages and disadvantages for both employer and employee.

For RubinBrown LLP, a St. Louis accounting firm, telecommuting has been a way of life for several years for the company's army of accountants, who often find themselves working in the field. The company is making a push to free up even more of its employees. More functions and data are being moved onto network servers that can be accessed by employees from their home computers.

"Before, all you could do was log on and check your e-mail," said Lynn Davis, human resources director. "Now you'll be able to do just about anything you could do at your desk. That's the goal."

Therein lies one of the challenges for companies looking to add or expand their telecommuting ability: They have to decide exactly what they want from it.

"You say telecommuting, and I think each person has a different idea of exactly what that means," said Vince Sechrest, network services practice leader for consulting firm SSE Inc.

Access issues

One of the first things that has to be decided is how much access to grant employees.

Do they simply need to download and upload files? Or do they need full-time access similar to what they'd have if they were sitting in the office? If the answer is the latter, that creates additional security issues and the need for encryption technology. Without it, the guy sitting one table over at Starbucks could be browsing your e-mail files.

Will the company provide the equipment, or is that an employee responsibility? There is a distinct advantage for companies that own the computers in their employees' homes, since they can control what is and isn't put on the computer.

"I can put on anti-virus software. I know it's running. I know it's been updated. I know the subscription hasn't expired," Sechrest said.

Moving away from the purely technical issues, things can get more complicated - particularly when companies have to decide which employees get to do it. Just because someone's job lends itself to telecommuting doesn't necessarily mean they should be.

There are personality types that tend to thrive when allowed to work away from the office, while others are better suited for a more formal work environment, said Francie Dalton, a workplace behavioral expert based in Columbia, Md.

Analytical types may find it easier to do their number crunching once they get away from the constant interruptions - phone calls, bickering co-workers - typical of most offices. And there are the highly creative employees who enjoy working in odd places, sitting in a coffee shop, by the pool, or maybe a park bench.

"Who cares, as long as they get the work done?" Dalton said.

On the flip side, she said, those workers in need of praise - the high-maintenance folks - may not fare so well if they venture too far from the bosses who dole out the praise. Likewise, people who enjoy socializing or organizing are more likely to thrive in the office, surrounded by co-workers.

Prove program works

In the end, telecommuting employees must prove their ability to work in the system.

Doing that requires a different way of approaching the job, said Joe Calloway, author of the book, "Work Like You're Showing Off!"

Telecommuting employees need to think of the results they are producing, he said.

And they need to make sure their employers are aware of those results. It's not enough for the employee to say he worked on a report today.

He needs to say exactly what he did on that report.

"When you are not there, and they can't physically see you work, you really have to go out of your way to assure your employer that they're getting what they're paying for," Calloway said.


packrat 10 years, 7 months ago

I work on systems all around the world from my computer.

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