It's 3:00 pm...Do you know where your telecommuters are?

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted June 01, 2001
by Gwen Moran

Brent Hall knows that when Jeff Copeland gets to his workstation at 7:30 a.m., he's going to put in a hard day's work. But Copeland, a senior developer for IT firm Buchanan Associates, is 537 miles from the office, and as Buchanan's vice president of human resources, Hall had better be sure.

After working in the company's Dallas headquarters for three years, Copeland began to get the itch for the smalltown life he had left behind. He approached Buchanan's management about making the move back home, and the company agreed to set him up with a home office. He now lives and works in his childhood hometown of Puxico, Mo., a small farming community approximately 160 miles south of St. Louis.

Copeland's arrangement may sound like a happy ending, but for his employers, the decision to let him telecommute is just the beginning of the story. When it created such arrangements for Copeland and other workers, Buchanan had to learn how to monitor, manage, and motivate them, just as they do with other workers.

Copeland is one of between 11 and 23.6 million teleworkers in the United States (depending on how you define the term). An increasing number of businesses are offering telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements to employees, according to Karol Rose, author of Work/Life Effectiveness: Practices, Policies, and Procedures (Kubu Communications) and president of Westport, Conn.-based Lifecare.com, a consulting firm that helps businesses integrate flexible workplace arrangements.

Giving workers the ability to better manage their own work hours may cut down on rent expenses, decrease stress, increase productivity, and help them attract or retain workers. But telecommuting brings with it hidden costs and unexpected consequences Rose says.

Something To Write Home About
Kathy Ives, executive vice president/COO of Princeton, N.J.-based The Kelsey Group (www.kelseygroup.com), a research and events production company, was also her company's first telecommuter. Ives, who was made a partner approximately two years after her hire, feels that the option to telecommute is a powerful perk a company can dangle in front of employees, one that can help attract and retain a strong staff. Buchanan, for instance, now allows a half dozen of its support staff to telecommute, though it still reserves this as a privilege for valued employees like Copeland.

Telecommuting's not for everyone. "Some employees are simply better-suited to telecommute than others," Rose says. She suggests developing an application for employees who wish to work from home. The applications should require employees to think about the arrangement from the employer's perspective and show that they understand how the work-from-home arrangement would affect the company and the employee's co-workers. It should also address the employees' approaches to work and help them determine whether telecommuting is the best choice for them.

Ives has found that employees who don't have much office experience may need closer supervision to adapt. She instituted a mentoring program for new telecommuters, especially younger, 20-something employees who may be less experienced and disciplined. Iris Feinberg, president of the Trillium Group, a medical billing and collections agency based in Decatur, Ga., has found her own way to address the who-goes-home issue: require face time first. Feinberg first piloted her telecommuting program five years ago, and what began with the billing department has grown to include 45 of her 65 employees. Still, no employee is guaranteed the opportunity to telecommute. Trillium Group requires employees to work in-house full time for the first 90 days before they become eligible, and employees who do work from home are required to report to the office one day a week.

According to Feinberg, the key to successful management of home-based employees is twofold: Spell out expectations in a telecommuting agreement and then keep the lines of communication open. Rose says to draft a telecommuting agreement, which spells out all aspects of the arrangement (including provisions for terminating the telecommuting arrangement without terminating the employee) and work with an attorney to ensure that the agreement is legal and nondiscriminatory.

How do you enforce such agreements? Feinberg has a hand-on approach. Supervisors from Trillium visit home offices and observe employees at work, often making recommendations about rearranging the home office to make employees more productive and safer. She requires employees to sign a telecommuting agreement that requires workers with young children to have babysitting arrangements during work hours.

"Do they stack their paper in the right place? Do they have a phone nearby? Are they set up to be as efficient as they can be?" Feinberg asks. "Often, we find that if employees have their desks set up by a window, they sit there and daydream, so we may ask them to move the desk to a different part of the office."

The corollary to establishing expectations for your telecommuters, of course, is making sure they have everything they need. Ives outfits home-based employees with laptops, Palms, online access, PCs, telephone lines, and mobile phones. In addition, employees are asked to load ICQ, an instant-messaging program, onto their computers. The company also uses Evoke, a Web-based conferencing tool, which allows employees to post presentations and meet regularly on line.

At Home
Still, she recognizes that no matter how well home workers can keep in touch, it's not the same as having them in house. "You take a lot of stuff for granted when you work in an office," she adds. "People pick things up around the water cooler. We have to state the obvious over and over again."

Ives worked hard to sort out the decision-making process within her company. She found that the pecking order that is so evident in office situations is blurred in a virtual setting. Employees, unsure of the proper decision-maker on a project or issue, would either overstep their authority or would reach out to a wide network of employees for feedback, often receiving varied and conflicting responses.

"When you're having an online meeting, you can't see someone roll their eyes or pick up on subtle nonverbal clues that you would when you're all sitting around a table," she says. "Organized communication helps keep everyone on the same page."

Process-oriented Ives instituted a decision-making model that clearly explained to employees what decisions they are empowered to make on their own and what decisions need to be shared with the team. Building these models, she says, has helped the company overcome the challenge of communicating clearly to employees in 12 states.

Still, making the shift from managing employees who are down the hall to managing employees who are not immediately visible, can be a real challenge and supervisors need to be educated about working with employees who are out of sight. Feinberg adds that communicating regularly with employees about their performance helps not only the employee but also the manager.

She speaks from the experience she gained when she first attempted to institute a telecommuting policy. "The staff ended up managing the managers, she says. "There were no scheduled staff meetings, and phone calls from at-home staff were haphazard instead of scheduled."

Managers who may not be used to working with people they can't readily see, must be instructed to give frequent feedback and clarify expectations in order for employees to perform as expected.

Brent Hall, senior vice president of Buchanan's human resources department, finds that putting positive incentives in place can make a manager's job easier. When the company found that chronic lateness in off-site employees' reporting billable hours was causing the company to have a cash-flow crunch, he instituted a bonus system, which was partially based on reporting hours each Monday by 5 p.m. "Our telecommuters were not getting their billable hours in on time," Hall says, "It was causing a serious delay." Within a few months of the program's start, on-time reporting jumped from 65 percent to more than 90 percent. The company was able to bill clients in a more timely manner and improve cash flow.

Home Management
Copeland says he is conscious of his impact on in-office employees and is concerned about in-office employees thinking that it's too much of a hassle to work with him.

Sometimes there's a technological problem with a technological solution.

As Ives' company grew, she quickly realized that communication became more difficult. People in the Princeton office started to get annoyed because virtual, non-Princeton employees would call at the last minute to arrange conference calls. It wasn't unusual for a staff member in Princeton to get three people on the phone and then get the voice mail of a fourth call member. That resulted in two choices: Wait until the fourth member was off the phone to continue or disconnect everyone and start again. It could take up to 20 minutes to get everyone on the phone for a conference call.

Ives dubbed another employee concern "virtual envy." She explains in-office employees may be envious of those working from home, while telecommuters often feel chained to their desks while they envision the in-office people going out to lunch and socializing by the water cooler. She continually keeps a dialogue open through corporate updates and meetings to educate both sides about these misperceptions.

Rose says businesses should avoid making decisions case-by-case "You need to have the input of a cross-section of employees so that everyone is on the same page about who will be eligible for telecommuting and why," she says.

In spite of the challenges, both Feinberg and Ives declare their telecommuting programs soundly successful. Feinberg says that allowing employees to work from home has helped her to hang on to staff in a very high turnover industry. According to Ives, the telecommuting option has helped her hire top-notch talent in a dozen states.

With the right people in place, the right systems to accommodate work-at-home employees, and the right policies to manage them, telecommuting can strengthen staff member's ties to the company, even while they work from a distance.

The Costs Of Telecommuting

When her largest client merged and nearly doubled her company's workload, Feinberg needed to find a way to stave off the cost of additional equipment and rent and utilities on additional office space.

She experimented with flex time, allowing workers to stagger their hours between 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., but soon found that supervisors had to work long hours to supervise fewer staff members at odd hours.

With home-based employees across multiple area codes, long distance charges became a significant expense. As the company grew and added more employees, the technology needed to manage incoming information became more sophisticated -- and more expensive. Overnight courier charges to ship work back and forth added up to about $18 to $25 each, with many employees getting and returning weekly packages.

"It's a lot more than putting in a $20 a month phone line in an employee's house," she says. "I would say that our program gives us a marginal savings, if at all." Kathy Ives, COO of The Kelsey Group, a research and conference production company, also believes her company doesn't save much money by allowing workers to telecommute.

House Rules

Beyond the technological and management issues that come with a telecommuting program, employers need to be aware that home-work arrangements come with a variety of legal risks. According to Steven R. Peltin, an attorney with Seattle-based Preston Gates & Ellis (www.prestongates.com), employers face a range of pitfalls, including:

SAFETY: Although the employer responsibility for accidents in home-based offices initially proposed by the Office of Safety and Health Administration in 1999 has been withdrawn, employers are still responsible for home workers who use employer-supplied materials or take on hazardous activities, and may face additional regulation under state law. Employers also need to be sure that they have adequate liability and workman's compensation coverage in case of an accident.

CONFIDENTIALITY: It's harder to protect trade secrets and other proprietary information when it's outside of your office. Peltin advises having employees schedule meetings outside of the home to prevent inadvertent disclosure of sensitive materials.

WAGES AND HOURS: Non-exempt workers must be compensated with overtime pay for any work hours over 40 in any work week, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Some state laws require overtime after eight hours in a day. However, there may be some dispute over how that's measured. For instance, if an employee answers the phone after-hours, does that constitute a work hour? It may be wiser to restrict telecommuting to exempt employees.

TERMINATION: Retrieving equipment from employees who part ways with your company can be tricky. If the employee is working on his own equipment, retrieving computer files gets even tougher. Companies like MarketFitz require employees to work in a virtual workstation that captures employee files. Spell out, in a written telecommuting agreement, who owns the equipment and the work and how it is to be returned.

Employers also need to be sure that their telecommuting policies are not discriminatory and that they may need to consider telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation for disabled employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, prudent employers should check out local ordinance restrictions of home-based employees, as some municipalities do not allow home-based workers. While some of these issues may seem to be remote concerns, they can become big headaches if not addressed up front.

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