Separated At Work

Adding It Up

Cost is another factor. Company leaders need to make certain they can afford the necessary equipment that makes telecommuting work. A typical telecommuter requires the standard office workstation and more. E-mail, a solid ISDN phone line and modems can be just the start of crafting an office-away-from-the-office. Adding furniture, voice mail, a fax machine, a laser printer and other necessary equipment can be quite costly.

Most business owners work out some kind of compromise with their telecommuters to handle costs. For example, Cywinski says ZenaComp paid for her laptop and phone line, but she added her own touches, such as a desk and a futon.

Meanwhile, a small Texas company makes certain its telecommuters are connected to the office but requires them to pay for their own hardware. According to Karl Springer, managing director of the 32-employee Middleton, Burns & Davis PC accounting firm in Dallas, the company pays for high-speed ISDN lines and has a system set up so telecommuters have Internet access. Purchasing a computer, however, is the worker's responsibility.

Still, he offers employees recommendations on the types of computer equipment to purchase, and the firm pays for all connection costs, which currently run into several hundreds of dollars a month for each telecommuting employee. Springer estimates a phone line costs $72 a month, while a router, or a device similar to a modem that communicates between the telephone and computer, costs between $150 and $600. He says the company has become aggressive in learning about and managing its computer system, and he believes it will eventually get costs down to the $150 to $200 range.

New developments in software and remote office structures could also change the way people work and could make telecommuting an even more viable option. For example, workgroup software is under development that allows employees working in several far-flung areas to work on a common project, whether that be a map, a blueprint or some other display. Lichtman says the software creates an Internet "workspace" that each worker can call up to make changes to the common project. Miller says the Internet is becoming much more flexible, so moving different kinds of work electronically is becoming easier to do.

Such developments could help eliminate one of telecommuting's biggest obstacles: the lack of face-to-face contact. "You lose something when you're just communicating by written word," says Lichtman. "You don't see body language or hear tone. You've got to be very careful; you might try to be cute in an e-mail message, and people [may] take it the wrong way." ZenaComp's next step, he says, is videoconferencing, which has become less and less expensive since its debut.

No matter what technique is used or what policy is adopted, each company and each employee has a different story to share about the requirements for getting started. The ZenaComp story echoes those of other firms that have attempted telecommuting. Cywinski's success may help pave the way so that other companies can set up telecommuting arrangements, according to Lichtman.

"If we [could] only hire people who live within an hour's drive of the office, that would limit our resource pool," Lichtman says. "Now we can choose people from anywhere in the world." And watch over them, too--which could make all the difference in the world.

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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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