Telecommuters: Invisible workers?

Those who work from home struggle with isolation. But few would give up the arrangement.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

During the six months that Allison Brinkman worked at home as a public relations manager, she savored the advantages.

"I didn't have to dress up, fight traffic, or worry about paying for doggie day care," she says.

But she found disadvantages, too. "I missed the social aspect of being part of a team and developing a rapport with colleagues," says Ms. Brinkman, who works with Eisen Management Group in Cincinnati.

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As the ranks of telecommuters grow – pushed by soaring gasoline prices – some in the work-from-home crowd point to disadvantages surrounding what many office-bound workers might assume is the ultimate deal.

A feeling of isolation counts as the biggest challenge many of them face, says Jay Malki, marketing professor at Northeastern University in Boston. He conducted a study for IBM, where more than 40 percent of workers do not come into the office every day.

Remote workers also express concerns that they are invisible and their work is not being recognized. "Isolation happens when telecommuters can't get the support they need," Professor Malki says. "When face-to-face communication isn't possible, workers need a substitute – and voice mail isn't it."

Communication via instant messaging and e-mail can also be misunderstood without vocal intonations or facial expressions, says Lindsay Gibson, director of training at VIPdesk, an Alexandria, Va. firm that supports home-based call centers and concierge services.

Supervisors attempt to address isolation

What does make a difference is a good manager. "A supervisor is more important than ever before in helping people deal with isolation, recognition, and visibility," Malki says. "People who are happy in remote work had very good supervisors. [The supervisors] took time to speak to them often, support them, and take care of them by tooting their horn for them."

To do that, supervisors must hone a new set of skills. "It requires new ways of creating connection among employees and new skills in reading body language via phone or e-mail," says Nancy McGuire, a management consultant in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Instead of being the hierarchical command-and-control type who only asks, 'Have you met your quota?,' those who supervise remote workers need to be more like coaches, Malki says.

In large companies, he found that attentive supervisors make it a point to visit off-site workers periodically. Some even hold virtual birthday parties, complete with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for the honoree.

Yet supervisors face their own challenges.

"As the manager you can't look over someone's shoulder and see what they are doing wrong, or point out mistakes or give praise on the spot," Ms. Gibson says. "It takes dedication from the supervisor to seek out ways to interact and provide feedback."

Even supportive bosses can't meet all of a telecommuter's needs for interaction. "It's strange going an entire day without seeing people," says Dave Pounder, who worked at home in Boca Raton, Fla., four days a week as a business analyst. "I'd go out to lunch even though I had food at home, just to see other people."

And one woman told Malki, "If I were single and young, I would not do this work. My family compensates for the loneliness at times."

Remote employees also find it more difficult to disengage from work and tend to put in longer hours.

"A lot of people who work [from home] say, 'I work in my pajamas, and my laptop is next to the bed,' " Malki says. "Other people get up, shave, dress, and go across the hall to their office. They have structure. They disengage much better than people who say, 'I work anywhere in the house.' You must disengage – otherwise work-life balance becomes a myth."

Even a home office doesn't guarantee balance. Rebecca Clark, who transported her public-relations job from Chicago after she and her husband moved to Rockville, Md., works from home. Although she is enthusiastic about the advantages, she struggles to disengage. "They say, 'When you work from home, you're never home from work.' I agree. I see my home office more than I see my bedroom, and sometimes fear burnout."

But even these disadvantages aren't enough to make many telecommuters long to return to a 9-to-5 life at the office. Brinkman, whose work-at-home days are over for now, says, "I'd go back to working remotely in an instant if it meant forfeiting the daily 45-minute rush-hour commute I have to endure twice a day."

At the same time, even the most enthusiastic telecommuters want at least an occasional chance to schmooze around the watercooler, catch up on office news and gossip, and attend a meeting or two.

"Personally, I like to be in the office some of the time," says Mitchell Hershkowitz, who manages seven people scattered from coast to coast for Dimension Data, a technology firm in Alpharetta, Ga. "Everybody on my team has that desire."

High gas prices may not create more telecommuters

Not even the surge toward $4-a-gallon gas is likely to push large-scale adoption of telecommuting policies, says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, who does not see that happening.

"The downturn in the economy could be the biggest obstacle to increased telecommuting," he says. "When companies begin struggling to turn a profit, they tend to want all their people on the front line. With the constant threat of downsizing looming over employees' heads, now is not the time to decrease face-time at the office."

Whatever the pluses and minuses, one thing is certain: In a global economy, telecommuting is here to stay.

"Workforces that are allowed to telecommute are proven to be more productive, loyal, cost-effective, and happier," says Brandon Dempsey, vice president of SuiteCommute, a telecommuting agency in St. Louis.

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