No Place Like Home

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 01, 2000
by Phil Albinus

Don't call Jonathan Trichter a slacker. Earlier this year he started working from home, but that just means he works more than ever. Telecommuting lets him balance 60-hour weeks working for Global Strategy Group, a New York strategic research and consulting firm, while still pursuing a career as a freelance political columnist and commentator. "I could have left to do that full-time," he says. Instead John Silvan, the CEO of Global Strategy Group, set Trichter free to work from home a few days a week. He retained a star player and saved his firm tens of thousands of dollars on recruiters and training.

Sooner or later, every business will face the same decision Silvan did.

Hide in the office, delete the e-mails in the in-basket, or try to change the subject at the next staff meeting ­ still the day will come. If they haven't already, employees will soon be asking to work from home. But telecommuting isn't a death-knell. With some planning and a desire to make it work, your employees and business can thrive without bottoming out the bottom line.

To Keep Them, Set Them Free
In this insanely robust economy, bosses have a new challenge that didn't exist 20, 10, or even 5 years ago: keeping good workers from leaving for other jobs. The permission to telecommute a few days a week or a month can prevent key employees from searching for greener pastures where they can call the shots. Otherwise, a company with more resources or more enlightened management could swoop in and scoop up your best workers.

Curiously, telecommuting is one area where big companies can sometimes be more flexible than small ones. They have more money to spend, more employees who can do the same job or pick up for each other, and can afford to take the chance that a given worker might not work out as a telecommuter.

Telecommunication giant AT&T Corp., for example, has 70,000 managers who are allowed to work from home, according to the company's spokesman, Burke Stinson. In a recent in-house survey, 50 percent of AT&T managers work from home one day a month, 25 percent work once a week at home, and 10 percent work from home all week, Stinson says.

What, You Worry?
Let's face it: Employees are people. Different people have different needs. Some need to watch their kids, others need to watch their stock portfolios. Some work better in the office than at home; others are more productive in a robe and slippers than in a suit and tie. And almost all employees need to be able to step out of the office once in a while, without disrupting the work of the other people around them. Telecommuters who work from home a few days a week or month and teleworkers who are permanent at-home employees will both play an important part in your business' future. Having the right technology and policies in place beforehand will make accommodating them a lot less worrisome.

If the thought of a telecommuting staff costs you more sleep than the possibility of your teenage daughter dating the drummer in a goth band, take it easy. Telecommuting doesn't have to equal disaster. Here are the top telecommuting worries and the reasons to set your mind at ease.

Worry#1: My janitor will want to work from home
Give them an inch and they'll demand a mile, many businesses figure. It's true that telecommuters and teleworkers aren't ideal for every small business. Machinists, repairmen, and hands-on workers can't do their work at home. Likewise, Stinson points out that non-managers at AT&T are union members and don't work from home.

On the other hand, there are plenty of jobs out there that people can do from home. Accountants, business managers, graphic artists, editors, technical writers, and public relations execs can all call it in. If a person can bring work home for a sick day ­ and not disrupt the flow of productivity ­ that person can telecommute.

Worry#2: I'll have to spend a fortune on equipment
Not so fast: Most businesses already pay for desktops, notebooks, phones, and peripherals for employees if they work at the office. Consider buying desktop-replacement notebooks they can use both at the office and at home.

Take a page from the playbook of Bookminders of Pittsburgh, Pa. The company outsources bookkeeping services to about 200 companies with revenues ranging from $250,000 to $10 million. Only two employees ­ Tom Joseph, the company's founder and president, and an operations manager ­ work in the company's headquarters. The remaining 38 or so accountants work out of their homes on Dell desktops provided by Joseph. "I used to joke that for every dollar we saved in office space, we lost one in phone expenses," Joseph says.

Worry#3: Our telecommuters will be out of the loop
Not every small business is as telecommuting-centric as Bookminders. Only a small share of the 35 employees at Global Strategy Group work from home on any regular basis. But 18 months ago, Silvan inaugurated a telecommuting policy and issued Compaq desktops and notebooks so telecommuters can get their jobs done. Global Strategy Group also will pay for employees' high-speed home Internet access.

This is a significant cost, but it's one that more and more businesses are deciding is worth it. Along with standard dialup connections ­ which supposedly offer 56Kbps speed, although the average connection rate varies from 24Kbps to 44Kbps ­ there's DSL, ADSL, cable modem, and ISDN. For DSL, an affordable service that uses telephone lines for reported speeds of 400Kbps, monthly charges average $50 to $100 a month.

If your staff lives and dies by e-mail and surfing the Web for research, your best bet is to make sure that members of your telecommuting staff have the high-speed Internet access they need. "For us, it's great for browsing the Web, but ironically it doesn't speed up e-mail," Silvan says.

At the same time, being a little out of the loop can sometimes be a good thing. An employee can actually be more productive when freed from the demands of busywork and office politics. "I feel undistracted at home," says Global Strategy Group's Jonathan Trichter. "I have no kids, no wife, no screaming baby, and there are no office distractions."

Worry #4: If I let employees telecommute two days a week, they'll want five
This may be true ­ but if you don't let them work from home those two days, they may not be not working for you very much longer. A few weeks before Terri Shaffer gave birth to her daughter two years ago, she worked out an arrangement with her boss at the Employment Policy Foundation, a labor and employment-policy research group based in Washington D.C. Since then, she's worked from home two days a week, without much incident. "My supervisor suggested I work from home, actually," she says. "And knowing him, I wasn't surprised that he suggested it."

You'd expect an organization like the EPF to be hypersensitive to its workers' needs, and less concerned with the bottom line. But in today's job market, you may have no choice. When someone who's as important to your business as Trichter is to Global Strategy Group wants to work from home, are you really going to say no?

Having the infrastructure in place can help you hang onto workers and even attract the sort of high-caliber recruits who may not be willing to take on a full-time desk job. "We were looking to tap into an underutilized segment of the market: people unwilling to take a full-time job at an office," says Bookminders' Joseph. "Our workers evaluate the total time out of life impact of a job. A typical full-time job takes 50 or 60 hours a week when you include driving, lunch, and overtime. Our employees are looking to work 25 to 35 hours a week with only 10 of those being time they spend out of their home office."

Worry #5: I'm in for a gigantic technology headache
The road to inefficiency is paved with good intentions. Many businesses may let employees work from home, thinking themselves wise and enlightened managers, and miss the fact that they've got to make changes to accommodate them. If the systems that the main office and the telecommuters use don't mesh, it will make your life difficult. Everyone has felt the frustration of trying to open an e-mail attachment only to find that it's saved in the wrong format. That's why it's not a bad idea to pay for a telecommuter's equipment - at least then it's certain everyone is on the same page.

For companies dealing with the infrequent telecommuter, say an employee who asks to work from home on a report once a month, letting them use their own computer is probably the best course ­ provided you're all running the same computer operating system and business applications. If your small business lives on Windows 98 PCs and uses Lotus SmartSuite, a telecommuter with an iMac and Microsoft Office is going to run into compatibility problems.

Finally, it's possible that equipping the business for telecommuting can actually improve the way everyone works. The Employment Policy Foundation has an intranet that Shaffer can dial into and check her e-mail, just as if she were in the office. But the intranet, and the interoffice communication it fosters, benefits even those workers who never spend a workday out of the office.

Worry #6: They'll be watching TV instead of working
Setting employees free to telecommute means trusting them, and busybody managers will need to stifle that character trait that constantly wants to know what everyone's up to. But working from home doesn't mean an employee's no longer accountable for her work. You'll continue to evaluate and reward job performance the same way as when they worked in the business office: by their results. "We have a very document-driven office, so it's clear who's the getting job done and who isn't," says Global Strategy Group's Silvan.

Worry #7: My clients won't work with someone who works from home
Communication is important, and even more so when the worker's out of the office. They need to be in contact with their managers and coworkers at the office. Of course, that's a lot easier when you can work on the same e-mail system and access voice mail remotely. "We have call forwarding and I answer phone calls from home, and people don't know I'm not there," Shaffer says. "And thanks to voice mail, I can manage calls I couldn't answer."

If dealing with finicky clients is a part of your employee's job description, you'll have to insist on a dedicated home office away from distractions such as loud television sets, barking dogs, babies, and rumbling dishwashers. With the right technology and policies in place, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out if the system's working, and you may be surprised by the results.

"We require that they have dedicated office space with a door," says Bookminder's Joseph. "You can't do this job on the kitchen table."

But you can go there to make a sandwich, if you want.

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