Separated At Work

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

This story appears in the March 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

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.

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.

Moving Up-And Out

Why let employees telecommute? According to a study by Olsten Staffing Services, here are the prime motivators:

Improved productivity: 45%

Economic reasons: 35%

Traffic patterns: 11%

Environmental issues: 6%

Contact Sources

Bonnie Cywinski, c/o ZenaComp, (716) 862-0800,

go2net Inc., (206) 447-1595

Middleton, Burns & Davis PC, (214) 989-0426,

Olsten Staffing Services, (516) 844-7590,

Telework Analytics International Inc., e-mail:,

ZenaComp, (313) 464-3700, fax: (313) 464-3730

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