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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.

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Bosses who keep workers on a short leash often express concern that remote employees won't log enough hours, or that they'll watch YouTube. But Debra Dinnocenzo, president of VirtualWorks! in Pittsburgh, cautions managers not to assume that just because workers are in the office that they're being productive. She says most studies show an average increase in productivity of 30 percent for telecommuters.

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Juan Londono, marketing director for a roofing company in Bradenton, Fla., lives in Orlando. In the beginning, he recalls, his boss was skeptical of telecommuting. To compensate for face time, Mr. Londono keeps a time sheet and a detailed planner. "For the month, I try to make it easy for him to know that today I'm working on this, and I have a meeting with an agency to discuss such and such," he says. "We meet once a week and go over the time sheet or priority list. He's become very receptive to that. I don't get questioned as often."

Telecommuting is usually less successful in the executive suite. "Face time is needed to navigate the politics associated with a six-figure salary," says Erin Peterson, a partner at Lantern Partners, senior-executive search firm in Chicago. "You have to see the people who report to you as well as those to whom you report in order to have credibility. There's a very real factor around 'out of sight, out of mind.' "

At every level, good communication can overcome some of the lost personal contact.

"Clearly knowing what the job is, having conversations about how they're going to work at home, and having a commitment to manage performance in a proactive way" all help, says Ms. Dinnocenzo. "A manager could ask, 'Jim, what are the 10 things you think it's important to accomplish this year? Give me a plan of how you think you're going to get through the year.' "

Some managers connect with far-flung workers via video conferencing. Others simulate face time using online services. Drew Gerber, CEO of Wasabi Publicity in Atlanta, manages a staff in seven time zones. "One of the challenges for virtual companies is, how does a manager get face time without being a pest or micromanaging people?" he says.

His solution is to track their work with an online service that monitors e-mail and phone activity. "I don't have to be on the phone with them continuously saying, 'Is this done, is that done?' " Mr. Gerber asks. Employees use the program, too. Christine Hohlbaum, who works for Gerber from Munich, adds, "It gives us an overview that regular e-mail cannot."

Gerber offers a caveat: "As great as it is to be virtual, you're never going to replace that human connectedness with technology."

Despite the limitations, Anderson, herself a former telecommuter and now head of E.H. Anderson Public Relations, says, "I know it can work. You want to make your employees as happy as you make your customers. My business is not going to grow if my employees are not happy."

Laermer sums up the changes this way: "The new workplace mentality is, 'You get your work done, I'll get my work done, and eventually we'll meet.' "