Workplace attitudes change toward 'face time'
While some bosses are still leery about telecommuting, others are realizing the productivity benefits of these long-distance relationships.
Bosses come in two types: those who want their employees to be present every day, and those who trust them to work anywhere.Skip to next paragraph
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Amanda Farmer knows which kind she prefers. During 18 months at a public-relations agency in New York, she says, "Our desks were set up so that our bosses literally looked over our shoulders all day. This constant vigilance made me less productive."
Now, as an account manager for a public-relations firm in Waco, Texas, Ms. Farmer telecommutes from her home in Austin. Although she sees her boss, Elizabeth Anderson, only once every three months, both find that the long-distance arrangement works well.
"It's a nonissue," Ms. Anderson says.
Yet "face time" – in-person contact with bosses and co-workers – is an issue in many businesses. More than 28 million Americans work at least one day a month from home, according to WorldatWork, a national organization of human-resource professionals. That figure could reach 100 million by 2010.
As the numbers swell, questions arise about how much face time is necessary. Despite lingering resistance on the part of many bosses, attitudes are changing, and some firms are devising inventive ways to maintain connections.
For Farmer and Anderson, that includes keeping in touch by instant message. "We all exchange to-do lists every week, so they can see what I'm working on," Farmer says. "They let me set my own schedule, and they trust me to accomplish my objectives." The result? "I am significantly more productive, as I do not have as many interruptions."
Richard Laermer, a marketing consultant in New York and author of the forthcoming book "2011," sees radical change ahead as more workers follow Farmer's lead. The high cost of commercial real estate in major cities, soaring gas prices, long commutes, and environmental concerns are altering work patterns.
"It is all going to be about telecommuting in two to three years," Mr. Laermer says. "It's going to be a huge change in the way things get done. Working at home is not only possible, it's going to end up being better for the employee and the employer."
When a friend of his who owns an executive staffing firm was priced out of his Madison Avenue office, he let his five employees work at home. Now they meet weekly in a rented conference room.
Others also see face time becoming less essential: "Maintaining connections with colleagues is not all that difficult," says Richard Coughlan, an associate dean at the University of Richmond's business school in Virginia. "In plenty of offices these days, folks are communicating via e-mail with those just down the hall. Moving some of those offices into employees' homes may not have much of an effect."
Even so, face time remains important, says José Astorga of Marlton, N.J., a warehouse manager and author of "A Bull in a Glass House." "Face time is the human interaction that we require in order to bond more effectively and complete the trust and camaraderie-building that is essential to success."
Mr. Astorga finds generational differences. "Young managers or entrepreneurs are more inclined to understand the pros of working from home because they have been raised in an Internet society. Older managers often have to be retrained to let go of restrictive management styles."