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.

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."

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.

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.' "

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