Separated At Work

Working It Out

Will telecommuting work in your business? Its viability and success vary among companies, says John Edwards, CEO of Telework Analytics International Inc., a telecommuting consulting firm in McLean, Virginia. Leaders of small companies in the midst of sudden expansion may find telecommuting saves office space while bringing in additional employees.

Telecommuting also works well for independent contractors, says consultant Thomas Miller, who has studied the option since 1983 for several companies, including Cyber Dialogue, a New York City-based Internet research and consulting firm. "[Telecommuting] can be a powerful tool for entrepreneurs," Miller says. "It helps them manage overhead costs and growth."

For it to work, employees need to be organized. Work patterns need to be plotted. The new workplace situation requires methods designed to make everyone feel connected to the "real" office, even while a virtual one may be slowly growing over a wider vicinity.

Lichtman says Cywinski has proved herself able to keep up her end, for him a strong testimony to telecommuting's viability. Others tell a similar story. In a recent survey conducted by Olsten Staffing Services, approximately 62 percent of U.S. companies polled are encouraging telecommuting arrangements, up from 49 percent in 1996 and 39 percent in 1994. More than 42 percent have telecommuting programs underway, and 70 percent expect telecommuting to increase this year.

Still, the numbers show growth only in companies' expectations: The survey revealed only 7 percent of workers make use of companies' telecommuting programs.

Is this dynamic odd? Not if you consider that telecommuting does not make sense for all types of businesses. According to the Olsten survey, insurance companies, high-tech firms and retail/wholesale operations reported the highest use of telecommuting. What's more, Miller says a survey he conducted last year reveals that of the 11.1 million telecommuters in the United States, 3.4 million are independent contractors.

If a particular job requires daily--even hourly--monitoring, chances are that telecommuting is a bad idea. However, other workers may have jobs that require meeting regular deadlines--if the work is completed on a timely, regular basis, where and how the nose gets put to the grindstone is of little consequence. Cywinski can manage her staff of consultants, many of whom also telecommute, from a distance. And she journeys regularly to the home office to make certain she is never out of touch. ZenaComp's office manager, on the other hand, needs to be on site at all times, Lichtman says.

"You don't just need to train the telecommuter. You need to train the telemanager," notes Telework's Edwards. Some small-business owners tend to manage by "counting heads," he says, believing workers can only do a good job if they are kept active under a watchful eye. "When people [work] remotely, you have to manage more by results. You have to agree to certain things by the end of the week--how many lines of code they're going to write, how many insurance forms they're going to review. Set targets, and have yardsticks to check them."

At go2net Inc., a publicly traded Seattle company with 42 employees that operates specialized Web sites, creative director Bryan Rackleff lives in Los Angeles and is only in the office every other week for a few days. When company executives first met Rackleff, he was teaching in California and working on a number of freelance projects. He was willing to travel to Seattle for a limited period but not on a permanent basis. Nonetheless, says Russell C. Horowitz, the company's CEO, the arrangement works because of the nature of Rackleff's job.

"Leaders can benefit from maintaining distance," Horowitz notes. "This allows them to see the macro issues more clearly." Workers responsible for daily functions might perform their jobs better at the office. Horowitz says he counts on Rackleff to keep the larger issues affecting the company in mind; because Rackleff is removed from the actual workplace, he can keep from getting bogged down in what Horowitz calls "microdetails." "There's a value to him being away," Horowitz says.

That doesn't mean Rackleff doesn't have to prove his worth. To make sure work proceeds smoothly, the creative director keeps his boss informed of his progress on a regular basis. When you're in this type of position, it's important for everyone to see what work is being accomplished, Rackleff says. "There are three levels of communication: e-mail, telephone and face-to-face meetings," he says. "All of those are necessary components of this relationship."

In other words, telecommuters still need to show up at the office on a semi-regular basis, and when they don't, they should make an above-average effort to keep their bosses informed. Miller says most telecommuting is done only part-time; most telecommuters go into the office one to three days a week.

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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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