Cathy Arnst

The age old question, for every employee, and especially working parents, is just how much time should you spend in the office? With telecommuting, flex time and the gadgets that can keep us connected where ever and when ever, the answer might seem to be "not much." Not so if you want to be a success, according to the BusinessWeek column, by former GE CEO Jack Welch and his wife Suzy. In their the couple answered a question about telecommuting in part this way:

Telecommuting may also be ideal, or it could be a total disaster, especially if you want to climb the corporate ladder. Because the facts are, even in this day of ubiquitous technology and open-mindedness toward flexible work arrangements, telecommuting still comes with a cost: diminished face time...Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven't been consistently seen and measured. It's a familiarity thing, and it's a trust thing. We're not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every "crucible" moment at the office, but at least they're present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I'm committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.

Telecommuting sends another message, one that says you value lifestyle flexibility over career growth. Again, that can be just fine. We recently met a lawyer who has worked for her corporate headquarters in Illinois for 12 years from her home in New Jersey. "My husband has a great job in Manhattan, and my kids love their school. I enjoy working with my colleagues, even if it is on the phone," she said. "Who needs to be CEO?" Well, obviously she doesn't, and maybe you don't either. But for anyone who has dreams of leadership in any meaningful way, telecommuting can get you only so far. The road to the top is paved with being there.

Not all of us are aiming to be CEO, or willing to make the sacrifices Jack Welch did to get there (Suzy is his third wife). For the rest of us, how much time in the office is enough? I rarely work from home--I find it too distracting and my commute is short anyways. But I do get out of the office most days by 6 now that I'm a mother, whereas before I was often there until 7 or even 8. I don't think I am any less productive, however. In fact, I'm probably more so because I know I don't have all the time in the world to finish a story. Besides, I've never believed that time spent at the desk equals high productivity (none of which would be true if I worked in an industry with billable hours, I realize).

But no question about it, there are plenty of managers who judge their staff by the hours they keep. Are those hours productive? Here's a telling anecdote. I was in my office about 7:30 on a Weds. a couple of years ago, after most of the magazine had closed, because I was meeting some friends for a birthday dinner nearby. Standing outside my office were three male colleagues--all dads, all suburbanites with lengthy commutes--who were chatting away about non-work subjects. I walked out and asked them why there were all still here, and they said, "why, we have work to do." Now, perhaps they were just taking a well-deserved break from all that work, but I think not. But they would be able to boast about the many hours they put in at the office, while avoiding the perhaps more difficult face time at home. A win-win?

I hope that with more and more women rising through the ranks, and more and more men seeking home time as well as promotions, this emphasis on face time will diminish, but perhaps I'm naive. What do you think?

By the way, I started thinking about this issue after reading an entry by our rival blog over at the Wall St. Journal, called The Juggle. Thanks Tom.