Separated At Work

Think telecommuting is only for the big guys? You're wrong. Small businesses are discovering just how easy it is.

Sure, employee "face time" is important to Mark Lichtman, but he says he doesn't mind if a worker's physical body is hundreds of miles away from the office.

Two years ago, with a newborn son in tow, Bonnie Cywinski, a top executive in Lichtman's technology and business solutions company, decided her family would be better off closer to her roots. Her parents lived in Buffalo, New York, and that's where she wanted to go. Lichtman, CEO of Livonia, Michigan-based ZenaComp, had no desire to lose her, nor did she want to leave her post. After all, she was the firm's vice president of sales and marketing.

Cywinski approached Lichtman, hoping they could work out a deal. "I didn't want to leave the organization, but I wanted to get back to my folks because, you know, free baby-sitting," she humorously recounts. What it boiled down to was this, she says: "I was a valued employee to them and didn't want to leave."

She didn't leave--but Cywinski no longer works in the company's office.

"For what we do, we don't need to punch the clock. We don't need to be there from eight to five," says Lichtman, who is ultimately responsible for the company's 50 or so consultants. "As long as Bonnie performs her function, it doesn't matter if she is behind a closed door 50 feet from me or behind a closed door [hundreds of miles away]. As long as there are quality services and business growth, it doesn't matter where [my employees are]."

ZenaComp represents just one of the nation's ever-expanding ranks of companies utilizing telecommuting. This option helps employees balance their corporate climb with the desire for family life--and can cut down on the business's rent by reducing the amount of office space it needs.

While the process seems simple--set up an employee in a home office, just an e-mail or phone call away--business owners are bound to run into a bevy of problems. Lichtman says he had to reassure Cywinski at first that he trusted her enough to work independently. For a few months, Cywinski had the mistaken belief that co-workers and clients believed her homebased status meant she was playing more and working less.

ZenaComp isn't alone in its experience. As telecommuting becomes a popular option for employees, business owners face changes in hiring, designing offices, even in setting goals for their employees. Telecommuting does work, say those who have successfully made the cubicle-to-home-office transition, but it requires a willingness by companies to work out the inevitable kinks that come with it, as well as a desire to accommodate valuable employees who want to try it out. Still, developing technology could be the cure for whatever cultural or mental barriers the working world has toward this burgeoning idea.

Brian Steinberg is a New York City writer who has contributed to The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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This article was originally published in the March 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Separated At Work.

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