Saying Adios To The Office

Now that her commute to the office lasts all of 10 seconds, Vicki Hall has lots of time on her hands. A senior communications analyst for Visa International, Hall used to drive some 2 1/2 hours each day to and from Visa's San Francisco headquarters. After moving to Pensacola, Fla., Hall, a single mother, is still taking care of business. With the blessing of her California bosses and armed with a company-paid PC, fax, ISDN phone line, and storage shelves, Hall has turned a spare bedroom into an office. "Telecommuting gave me my life back," she says.

As professional men and women attempT to do justice to their careers while attending to family and personal needs, more and more are working without visiting the office more than once in a blue moon. The appeal is enormous. At home, you can spend more time with the kids, work in casual clothes, and tailor a schedule that lets you tackle your job at odd hours. Some 9.9 million people work outside their main corporate offices at least three days a month, up from 9.1 million in 1997 and 5.4 million in 1993, according to Raymond Boggs, director of home-office research for INternational Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Telecommuting has gotten an added boost from a strong economy in which employers must make accommodations to attract the best and brightest workers. There are also environmental and political pressures as companies respond to Clean Air Act provisions that aim to cut traffic. And businesses want to pare real estate costs by creating "hoteling" arrangements in which, say, 10 people share a single cubicle on an as-needed basis. Companies are finding that telecommuting can boost productivity 5% to 20%, according to Jack M. Nilles, author of Managing Telework (John Wiley & Sons, $29.95).

Technology is helping people break free of the office. With laptops, speedy modems, the Internet, and the emergence of corporate intranets, jobs are becoming portable. Employers and employees can easily swap E-mail and share PC documents from afar. This cuts down on faxing and overnight-courier costs.

Is telecommuting for you? Nearly 75% of teleworkers responding to an AT&T survey last year said they were more satisfied with their personal and family lives than before they started working at home. But telecommuting is not for every person or job, and you'll need a massive dose of self-discipline to pull it off. Ask yourself if you can perform your duties without the boss breathing down your neck. On the other hand, would you go stir-crazy without being able to schmooze with officemates?

Many companies insist that you iron out a schedule with your supervisor before you begin. You may prefer to work at 6 a.m. and hit the links at 3 p.m.--just be sure you're available for those 9 a.m. meetings. Not every company will require formal training before you set up a remote office, but it's a good idea to sound out your boss about his or her concerns.

APPEARANCES COUNT. It's equally smart to assuage the fears of co-workers. Your colleagues may become resentful if they think you're on paid vacation or suspect they'll get saddled with extra work in your absence. As a result, you may want to trade favors with your cohorts--by covering for them if they leave early one day, for example. And make sure they know they can call you at home. Appearances count: If you choose to work two days a week at home, you may not want to make them Monday and Friday, advises telecommuting consultant Gil Gordon in Monmouth Junction, N.J. Peers might think you're taking long weekends.

It's also imperative to set up ground rules with your family. The good news about telecommuting is that you can be close to your loved ones. That's also the bad news. Spouses and small children have to understand that even though you're in the house, you are busy earning a living. It's fine to throw in a few loads of laundry or answer the door when the plumber comes. It's another thing to take the kids to the mall or let them play games on your office PC.

Clearly demarcate your workspace by using a separate room with a door you can shut. Let your family know that, emergencies excepted, the space is off-limits during working hours. Some employees wear corporate badges or business attire at home to alert the family that they do not want to be disturbed.

If you have infants or toddlers, arrange for child care. "Telecommuting is not a substitute for dependent care," says Barbara M. Reeves, a virtual-office program manager for Boeing. "With a young child, you're really trying to hold down two jobs--and probably not doing very well with either one."

Once you get down to business, you may have to work hard to remain in the loop. That's why so many telecommuters stay at home only a couple of days a week. Aside from rubbing elbows with bosses and cohorts, there are meetings and other situations where face time is essential. Just one in five telecommuters responding to the AT&T study indicated that they felt more isolated working at home. But some teleworkers worry that being out of sight means being out of mind, and that that will hurt their chances for a promotion or a bonus. Moreover, you may be concerned that if bad times hit, you'll be the first to get sacked.

BE A STAR. The best way to eliminate such concerns is to produce. "You need to establish your credibility," says Betty Sun, who works from her house in Bethesda, Md., as an acquisitions editor for publisher John Wiley & Sons in New York. Of course, while it's important to put in a full day of work while telecommuting, also remember that there's a time to leave the office. When the lines between your home and office blur, it can be hard to pull yourself away.

Maintaining the balance has not been a problem for Sun. She has been promoted since she began telecommuting and now manages two New York employees from a distance. But there may come a time when you'll have to ponder a difficult question: Would you rather climb the corporate ladder or the stairs to your home office? The higher up you move in your organization, the more likely it is that your presence at headquarters may be required at all times. Telecommuting can be terrific at certain stages of your life and career. But when the kids are older, you may be ready to return to the office full-time.

Even though the telecommuting phenomenon continues to mushroom, you may still encounter old-fashioned employers who are resisting the trend. But if you're a star performer, lots of companies will let you telecommute if that's the way to hook you. "The whole drift of the '90s is to introduce flexibility into work flow," says Thomas E. Miller, a vice-president for Cyber Dialogue, a New York-based research and consulting firm. That's good to know if you find the back-and-forth pull of train or car commuting is pulling you apart at the seams.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.