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Is a Home Office Really a Dream Come True?

What you should know about working from home -- and how you can make the leap.
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For many modern parents, the "American Dream" for this century is having a job that will allow them to work from anywhere on the planet. Given today's technology, who wouldn't skip rush-hour traffic to play with their kids, and then, after a casual breakfast, check into their office simply by clicking a mouse?

More than 15 million Americans now work from home or a centralized telework center for at least part of their work week. And the trend toward telecommuting isn't just benefiting workers. Many companies in today's competitive information economy are eager to cut costs and improve worker satisfaction by adopting telecommute programs. AT&T estimates that it saves $3,000 annually per telecommuting employee and, as a result, more than 50 percent of their office-based workers telecommute at least two days a week.

Despite these benefits, many employers remain resistant to helping their workers make the leap from office to home. Likewise, many parents find that working from home is not always a "dream come true."

Telecommuting obviously involves more than simply buying a portable computer and installing a second phone line. New models for communication, information exchange and accountability are necessary in order for employers and employees alike to have a sense of structure and security. It's also hard to measure the business and social significance of casual face-to-face interaction in the coffee room or elevator. To ensure a smooth transition from office to home, many companies hire professional consultants to help develop systems and strategies for clear communication and increased productivity.

Workers who desire to join the country's growing "virtual workforce" have essentially two options: Seek a position at a company with an existing telecommute program or strive to create one at your current job.

"Small-to-medium-sized businesses who employ information workers like banks, insurance companies, software developers, and law firms are prime candidates for telecommuting," says Jack Nilles, founder of JALA International, a Los Angeles-based management consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses establish effective telecommute programs. "Though today only about 10 percent of these employees work remotely, it's likely that over 80 percent of the information workforce could telecommute at least some of the time," he says.

Software engineer Steve Miller of San Diego, Calif. was in an ideal position for telecommuting last year, but the opportunity fell through. "Our client at the time had a more traditional mindset and was highly averse to the idea because he wanted to have his staff 'always within reach,'" he says.

When trying to telecommute, your first obstacle is often management reluctance -- the 'how do I know you're working if I can't see you?' syndrome, says Nilles. "A good approach in this situation, particularly with numbers-oriented organizations, is to give the boss factual numbers in the form of a cost-benefit analysis form. Usually, the net annual benefit to the employer is several thousand dollars for each telecommuter, because the employer reduces operating costs while getting improved worker performance."

"Most telecommuters don't do it full time -- they're typically in the office half time or more -- so it's not as if they're disappearing off the face of the earth," Nilles says. "The trick is to rearrange your schedule so that solo work, plus interactive work that doesn't require face-to-face interaction, is done in telecommuting mode and your face-to-face interaction is clumped into as few days per week as is feasible."

Dr. Michelle Weil, a clinical psychologist in Orange County, Calif. and author of "TechnoStress: Coping With Technology @Work @Home @Play," makes the following recommendations for workers who want to "click" their way around rush-hour:

  • Suggest a trial run involving employees who already have sufficient equipment at home so that no additional costs are incurred.

  • Work with management to establish a service-level agreement specifying performance requirements and measurements.

  • Seek the aid of a professional consultant to adopt efficient systems.

  • Establish specific rules of conduct, in particular, when you'll be accessible.

"It turns out that one of the most frequent problems telecommuters face is not getting to work -- as their supervisors often fear -- but knowing how to stop," Weill says. "In fact, with the inundation of modern technology, workers may be forced to learn a new skill: being gracefully inaccessible so they can get on with living the rest of their lives."

Of course, not all companies are resistant to the idea of telecommuting. Hopeful teleworkers can seek out jobs with progressive Hi-tech companies, like Sun Microsystems, who are busy figuring out the best ways to tap the efficiencies of a virtual workforce.

According to Kathryn Ridley, director of Sun's Workplace Resources group in Palo Alto, Calif., about 30 percent of Sun's employees telecommute, travel or work from a telework center.

"In order to maintain a high level of productivity and quality of life for our employees, we're developing a new facility management approach termed 'clicks not bricks,'" Ridely says. "This approach favors the click of a mouse over the bricks of a traditional office. Our CEO, Scott McNealy, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that he is going to put 25,000 workers out of offices. This doesn't mean that employees won't have a place to go, it means that they're going to be extremely versatile and mobile."

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