Winning Pitches for Wannabe Telecommuters
Jill Hamburg Coplan
Like lots of entrepreneurs, Howard Barokas, the founder of three-year old Seattle high-tech marketing firm Barokas Public Relations, liked the idea of telecommuting as a hypothetical. But he just didn't want his 10 employees to ever be inaccessible during office hours. "I'm a big fan of work-life balance," he says. "But I didn't understand: How do you not disrupt your workflow?"
Then came a very short argument that altered his perspective -- made by his wife, Wendy. Go wireless, she suggested. Her argument seemed obvious from her experience working at Microsoft, which embraces telecommuting.
Barokas couldn't argue with that and decided to try the idea out on everyone, himself included. He found a cell-phone plan offering tons of minutes and distributed phones to his staff. They can use the phones and minutes for either personal or business calls, as long as they're always available to clients -- "a pretty simple deal," he says. He also purchased and distributed a number of RIM (Research in Motion) BlackBerrys, wireless handheld devices that send and receive e-mail by radio waves.
Now, he runs meetings from a fresh-air perch on a ferry outing from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and handles electronic correspondence from the chair lift of a nearby ski mountain. His employees do the same. "An idea I viewed as a danger to the agency's business operations became one of our strongest assets," he says. And that's not to mention that his wife sees him more often for dinner.
That fear of not having access to valued people is a big concern for business owners -- and one that almost derailed Chris Freitag, a mechanical engineer with Symyx Technologies, a startup that creates materials for the life-sciences and electronics industries. He and his wife had their first child last July -- and soon found out how scarce and expensive quality day care is in Silicon Valley. While Freitag saw telecommuting as the perfect work-family solution, his company was not so sure. Some of his work, his bosses felt, couldn't be done remotely.
So Freitag devised a schedule that involves partial telecommuting -- he works at home from 6 a.m. to noon and finishes his day with a few hours at the office (his wife works a split shift from home, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.). That schedule helped sell his company on the concept. But he also had to agree to be available in person, outside those hours, whenever he was needed. The company need only give him a couple of days' notice.
Here's another argument to try on reluctant small-business owners who are resisting the idea of working from home: Telecommuters actually work longer and harder than office workers. They work more hours per week, and the more they increase the amount of time they work from home, the more they outproduce their office-based colleagues, according to a recent study by Performaworks, an industrial-psychology research and software firm.
More work is easier, perhaps, when you're doing it in a bathrobe. Or so says Michelle Blank, a supervisor with Radvision, a seven-year-old events-telecasting company headquartered in Mahwah, N.J., and Tel Aviv, Israel, with about 250 employees. Blank reluctantly let an employee telecommute for family reasons about a year ago, and things went so well (thanks to constant communication and a commitment to the process on both sides) that now the whole department telecommutes one day a week. "Part of keeping employees fresh is giving them a chance to decompress," she says. "And that happens when you're working in your pajamas."
Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan