Work A La Modem

Being a telecommuter has its joys--and headaches

Back at the dawn of modern life, four or five years ago, I went out on my own. Not to start a company. I simply left one regular job, with a boss, a W-4 form and all, for another. But instead of driving each day 113 miles to and from a newspaper office full of amusing, schmoozing, scheming, and sometimes annoying colleagues, I began spending my workdays alone. I began to telecommute, working in Florida as a writer for magazines in New York City.

Boy, do I ever get a lot of questions about what it's like to work this way. People ask if I get lonely. Yes, I tell them. They want to know how did I get to do this? I'm not altogether sure, so I usually mumble something about "close professional relationships." They ask how do I get anything done? I say it's easy if you like your work. Being alone, do I act weird? No more so than before, not counting the time I bought one of those 2.5-gallon jugs of water, set it on a table, drew a cup, and began gossiping with myself.

The questions usually circle this central point: Don't I feel askew, like some goofy appendage to the world of real careers? I used to say yes, sometimes. Now, I always say no. The number of telecommuting Americans quadrupled this decade, to nearly 16 million, many in jobs like mine and other New Economy "knowledge-based" industries. But I was surprised recently to see a help-wanted ad for a telecommuting structural engineer. And my neighbor went skiing last winter in Colorado with a bunch of software writers who plunged down the Rockies by day and knocked out code by night.

The Internet is enabling such oddities, but as more business is done online, telecommuting is no longer the career dead end some people warn me about. Yes, there are risks. But there's also the chance to feel like a pioneer--resourceful, self-reliant, open to unexpected prospects.

Most telecommuters work at home, but to me that seemed like a terrible idea. Way too many distractions, especially my two kids. That's why I lease an office in a two-story stucco bank building four blocks from my house. The singular nowhereness of my little town--a square mile of Atlantic barrier island called Melbourne Beach with 3,200 souls and zero stoplights--means rents are cheap. Mine is less than the highway tolls I used to pay.

If you were to visit, you might find my office kind of spooky. Downstairs are the bank and a travel agency. Beachcomber's Beauty Salon, whose mermaid sign hangs out front, closed a couple years back. Upstairs, it's so empty that my wife tells people I'm a squatter. I've had a few neighbors, including a profane, chain-smoking accountant named Dick, and a real estate man, Bill, who gave me bags of sweet citrus from his yard. He died last year.

Keeping me connected are three phone lines--voice, fax, and data--plus cable TV, a friendly Federal Express man, and the occasional trip to New York. For me and every telecommuter, staying in touch is a big part of the job. A work-at-home Fidelity Investments executive once told me she even takes her phone to the bathroom so as never, ever to miss a call. Recently, I was talking about all this with Daniel Gorrell, an auto-marketing consultant, who has telecommuted since 1990 to a San Diego firm, Strategic Vision Inc., from his Orange County home two hours north. "It's not the leisure class," he snorts. "Most people are working harder and longer." The night before I spoke with Dan, a Sunday, he had been up at midnight, calling clients at Renault in Paris.

Because we are helpless without our phones and computers, they take on the character of crucial but unfathomable colleagues. "Whenever there's the slightest glitch, I become quite panicky," Susan Sharin told me. Susan is an investment adviser who used to commute the 42 miles each way to Providence but now works from her home on 14 acres near Eastford, Conn. Susan practices yoga in the same room where she minds $25 million. After struggling with her computers, she concluded, "they're not logical, and you simply have to accept them."

This is a level of consciousness that I have yet to reach. Another telecommuter I've met, Jill Fallick, handles computer glitches more sensibly: She gets her husband to fix them. Jill is a product manager for Morningstar Inc., the investment-research firm in Chicago. That's where she worked from 1994 until August, 1996, when her husband's career drew them to Silicon Valley. Jill told me: "I had a great manager who had a fundamental trust in the people who worked for her. She asked me, `Would you consider staying on as a telecommuter?' And I said, `Yes!' I had worked at two other companies, and I knew how crappy it can be when you don't like the people."

Pregnant at the time, Jill moved with her husband to a three-bedroom rental in Atherton. The spare bedroom is her office. In it, she says, are a big, old desk, shelves piled with reference books, a bogus Oscar and a teddy bear, a Pentium II computer with 17-inch monitor and Lexmark laser printer (Jill paid), a HEwlett-Packard fax machine and copier (Morningstar paid), a photograph of her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Meredith, three phone lines, and a cable modem, "which is my pride and joy. Morningstar pays for that."

"BRICK WALL" Facing Jill are two clocks, one set to California time, the other Chicago time. By the time the Chicago clock reads 9 a.m. each workday, Jill has taken Meredith to day care and is on the job. At first she worried plenty. "There's a sensE that you have to overproduce," Jill told me. She felt this pressure despite having lots of people back in Chicago "who knew who I was and who didn't think I was some weird person out in California. I just had to trust that they were behind me."

Jill had to teach herself to extend that trust. "When you start telecommuting, suddenly part of what you're doing is this whole PR campaign about yourself. You're not a key person in the office anymore." In her first assignment, Jill conceived a plan to keep clients by product improvements and sharper use of customer databases.

Yet when it came time to execute the plan, "I kept coming up against brick wall after brick wall," she says. "That was my point of highest anxiety." Bits and pieces of the plan ultimately were put into effect, but as a whole it died.

Eventually, Jill took on a new role, coaching project managers how to handle things like budgeting, market research, and new product development. Getting back into a groove, she says, "is where my relationships in Chicago served me." What made those relationships work? "People know that if they're in a bind, I'll say, `Sure, I can help.' You have to be even more of a team player."

It's extra effort, and not everyone sees the point. One of Jill's colleagues, Laura Lallos, returned to Chicago last year after working as an investment analyst for 18 months from Oregon. She has seen both sides now. "The main differences," Laura told me, "are that when you're telecommuting you're far more productive than you can ever hope to be in the office. But you don't really have your finger on the pulse of the company." Without that sense, Laura feared the company would expand into new markets, leaving her behind. She's happy to be back in Chicago, where she has a new position at Morningstar's Web site, something she couldn't have achieved in Oregon. But she's also more aware of the time lost commuting, and at the office, she's "much less patient with the droning that goes on in meetings." Every telecommuter I know is glad to miss most meetings. But we know, too, there are losses, both to the business and ourselves. As Laura notes, "there's only so much you can do out of the office." Had she not returned, she figures she and Morningstar eventually would have parted.

Telecommuters all wonder: Will the copper wires binding us to our livelihoods snap? Once, at a barbecue, my host told me about a guy he knew, a writer on the Gulf Coast who had a sweet deal with a computer publisher in New England. "One day the publisher just decided he could get the work done cheaper up North and cut him loose," he told me, jabbing a chicken breast. "And that was it: He was toast."

Getting canned is a worry for most anyone with a job, but it concerns me less now than when I started telecommuting. In part, this is simply because I've gotten used to my unusual situation. But employers are also way more open to telecommuting now than five years back. I don't expect any telecommuter to become CEO of a bricks-and-mortar company, yet there's a palpable sense of opportunity fostered by the Net.

As the Net hurtles forward, as more work is done by modem, as telecommuters morph into cybercommuters, working remotely has become, for some, a competitive advantage. Jill Fallick, now expecting her second child, just won "a really new, chunky project that I never would have been given had it not been for the Internet," she says. As a cybercommuter, mortally dependent on the Net and so intimately familiar with it, she can do much of the research on her project via the Net, putting her squarely where Morningstar sees its future: "The whole world now is Internet, Internet, Internet," she says--the world in her spare bedroom.

"DELICATE QUESTION." Web sites lead me to new people, new stories, new opportunities, every week. That's how I discovered Dan Gorrell. It's also how I met Susan Sharin. I asked Susan to compare people she encountered in the brokerage office where she worked with those she meets now. "A delicate question," she told me by e-mail. "Truth is--the real people I have met in my cybercommuting life are far more interesting."

But can a cyber-relationship replace one forged in the flesh? Dan thinks not. Face time, he says, is critical not for its own sake but to build empathy. "It's a human connection," he says. "It takes time, and human beings need visual cues, the symbols of being together and caring for one another."

That's what I used to think. Now, I'm not so sure. One reason is what happened to Susan. A couple of years ago, the Net led her to a like-minded man in Oregon. They corresponded online for months, slowly discovering a common outlook on managing other people's money. After scads of e-mail, but without ever meeting to shake hands, they became partners in a virtual firm, Efficient Frontier Advisors. They have since met, once, and the firm already has more than doubled the money Susan manages. But even before that, Susan arranged to have her new business partner stay the night in New York as the guest of her 85-year-old mother. "He didn't turn out to be a serial killer or anything," she says, laughing.

Does that seem funny to you? When I heard the story, it struck me as positively nuts. But so did telecommuting the first time I heard the word, sometime late in the last century.

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