Tele-Work Still a Slow Commute
BOSTON — For nearly three decades, experts have predicted that the office towers will empty, as people work from home in their blue jeans and bunny slippers.
But not yet, and likely not soon.
While telecommuting has grown, as technology infiltrates the home and workers demand more flexibility, it's far from sweeping the US.
"There are still people insisting that by the year 2000, there will be 40 or 50 million people telecommuting," says Christena Nippert-Eng, sociology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. "They're wrong."
Those who study the trend see two obstacles: Plenty of people don't want to work where they live; and plenty of managers worry about workers they can't see.
"The biggest reason people haven't left the office is because they have employers who aren't willing to trust them to work from home," Ms. Nippert-Eng says. "Unless that changes, you will continue to see only small increases [in telecommuting]."
About 11 million Americans telecommute, estimates New York-based research group FIND/SVP Inc. That compares with 4 million who worked from home for an outside company in 1990.
To promote the concept, a coalition of nonprofit, government, and corporate groups have dubbed next week "telecommute America week."
One of the biggest myths about telecommuting is that workers who do it stay parked at home every day.
Not all or nothing
"A lot of people think telecommuting is an all or nothing deal," says Robert Moskowitz, president of the American Telecommuting Association in Washington. Instead, he says, most telecommuters spend one to three days a week at home. Typical hours: 18 to 19 a week, according to the FIND/SVP survey.
In fact, consultants suggest that it's dangerous not to put in some face time with the boss.
Telecommuting isn't meant to last forever, either. Most workers do it for nine to 18 months, until a promotion or change in duties brings them back to the office, says Gildon Gordon, who runs a telecommuting consulting firm in New Jersey.
The success of these arrangements varies widely. Those who trade their suit for sweats cite increased productivity and better balance of work and family. Mr. Gordon says 5 percent or fewer telecommuting arrangements fail.
Take Mary Beth Swibes, a systems consultant at Sears, Roebuck. For three years, she's worked from her home in Hoffman Estates, Ill., two days a week. Before, she drove 65 miles to work - two hours, each way.
The new arrangement means an extra eight hours a week at home and a boon to her family life.
"It has kept the atmosphere uplifted at home and at work," says Ms. Swibes, who heads the telecommuting program for Sears's information systems department. "During the two days I'm working from home, I can help my daughter do her hair and listen to stories and fix breakfast. And in the evenings, I can close the door at 4 and be at home at 4:01."
But telecommuting doesn't always work. Nippert-Eng has found that 1 in 5 arrangements fail. Some workers missed their office colleagues. Others complained the dog next door barked too loudly or people at the office weren't supportive.
"People should look at telecommuting as something that is right for certain jobs, certain employees, and certain managers," Mr. Gordon says, "but not everybody."
The right job
Indeed, plenty of jobs simply can't be done from home. It's pretty hard to build a car in your living room.
Yet even managers find that setting up shop at home can help productivity. At AT&T, for example, 48 percent of 36,000 US-based managers telecommute, six days a month on average.
"People have to have a good dose of self-discipline and self-motivation to make this work," Gordon says. "If they don't, then they risk falling prey to all the normal household distractions ranging from the refrigerator to the TV."
And you must be able to handle isolation. Merrill Lynch puts potential telecommuters through a two-week simulation in a lab where workers can only use the phone and e-mail to deal with colleagues.
The right company
If you've got a boss who won't let you out of his or her sight, you can probably forget about telecommuting, experts say. Even open-minded managers must work to keep telecommuters in the loop.
"It's interesting to note that some of the same managers who might be skeptical or nervous about whether people can work from home," Gordon adds, "are the same ones who work from home themselves."
Telecommuting works best at companies with formal policies, experts agree.
Merrill Lynch rolled out a formal telecommuting program in April 1996. Currently 400 employees nationwide participate. Only one dropped out, because she missed the social interaction, says program director Camille Manfredonia.
About two-thirds of Fortune 500 firms have employees who telecommute, consultant Gordon estimates.
Those that do it report increased productivity (although they admit it's hard to quantify), lower real estate costs, and high retention and morale.
"Employees love the flexibility, but their supervisors tell us they see increases in productivity and moral," says Susan Sears, AT&T's telework projects director, who telecommutes from her Phoenix home.
Consultants say most people should telecommute because it will improve their productivity, not as a substitute for child care or elder care.
Most say there's no proof that telecommuting is a career-ender. And many managers say those employees who telecommute tend to display the skills they look for in promotable people.
Still, nothing is guaranteed.
"I always tell prospective telecommuters that if your No. 1 objective is to move up as far and as fast as possible ... then you probably shouldn't telecommute," contends Gordon, "because you'll obsess over it, and it will become self-fulfilling."
Once you've determined you have what it takes to work from home, here are some ways to make the transition smoother:
* Get the right work space. Setting up at the dining room table won't do. You need your own room where you can close the door. As far as equipment (computer, fax, phone), most companies negotiate what they will pay for case by case.
Mary Beth Swibes, who has telecommutes two days a week, bought a fax and phone, and her employer, Sears, paid for her laptop, an extra phone line, and phone bills.
* Get everyone's support.
That includes your co-workers, family, even pets. Let your neighbors know that just because you're at home doesn't mean you'll sign for all their daytime deliveries. And make sure your spouse understands that being close to the kitchen doesn't mean dinner will now be served promptly at 6.
* Establish a routine.
Decide how you will start and end your work day. "With the home office right there, we hear from some employees at the beginning that it's hard to stop working," says AT&T's Susan Sears.
* Keep in touch with your boss and your team members.
Ms. Sears travels sometimes twice a month from Phoenix to New York to meet with co-workers.
And Greg Schall, a Hewlett-Packard computer engineer near Atlanta who has worked at home for three years, invites the nine people on his team to his house every other month for a home-cooked meal. "My only rule," he quips, "is no business is allowed to be discussed."
* Don't be a recluse.
"We don't advise that the classic introvert [is] the best telecommuter," says work-at-home consultant Gildon Gordon, "because that person, left to his or her own devices, would just scroll away in their home office, and I don't think that's wise for anybody."