Shine Those Dress Slippers

There's more to telecommuting than just sitting around in your pajamas while you talk to your boss or clients on the phone.

by / August 31, 1998
The office adjoins a well-manicured lawn or a lake instead of a skyscraper's four-story parking lot. Proper attire is a bathrobe and slippers instead of a suit with the red power tie. The razor or makeup is still in the medicine cabinet, and the car is in the garage, yet the employee is already at work. Given a choice of working conditions, who wouldn't go for this?

Scott Ross, CEO and co-founder of Venice, Calif.-based Digital Domain, said at the Cities of the Future Conference last December that those conditions would be ideal for him, but working at home isn't possible because of the type of work his company produces. "The concept of having artists stay in their home through a broad-band interconnect and try to work on what is the most collaborative form of art in the world -- filmmaking -- scares the dickens out of me," said Ross, whose company created the Academy Award-winning special effects for Titanic [also see Government Technology's Visions, May 1998].

That scare isn't too widespread, since many people already productively telecommute -- also known as telework and flexiplace, among other names. It's an opportunity for employees who want to work outside the office while remaining a productive member of a government agency or private organization.

"Working from home can help employees balance their family and work; this may improve job satisfaction and employee morale," said Sandy Britt, the General Services Administration's regional systems chief for Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. It can also improve the environment by reducing rush-hour traffic and pollution. Telecommuters also decrease the need for office space.

"People would rather telecommute from home. The trends are to telecommute from home," Britt said in February at the Government Technology Conference in Austin, Texas. "[Just] make sure you have the need."

Who, When and How Often

Exactly who is eligible to telecommute, when is the proper time during the week to do so, and how often a person can telecommute are questions that must be answered by management and the prospective telecommuter.

Gil Gordon, of New Jersey-based Gil Gordon Associates, suggests both parties agree to conditions and then sign a contract. Gordon, who started in the telecommuting field in 1982, said telecommuting should be done a maximum of three days per week. "Try to get your manager to let you telecommute one day a week for a month. That four-day trial is pretty much risk-free," Gordon said.

The contract should include language noting that this is a volunteer program, not a benefit or perk, and that the manager could require employees to return to working in the office full time if the telecommuting program doesn't produce results similar to or better than what was previously achieved in the office. Employees should also be aware of each factor in the equation, which are likely to be included in the contract: Who pays the phone bill for the telecommuter? Should there be one phone or two to utilize both data and voice? How often should an employee check e-mail? Can a manager visit a telecommuter at home? How can an employee and manager overcome inadequate training?

Most of the answers depend on the type of job and the give and take between employee and manager. "Information-based jobs with a minimum amount of unpredictable face-to-face contact required are good prospects," Gordon said. "Also, look for jobs that are physically portable -- that is, whatever the telecommuter needs to do the job can be taken home in a briefcase or box, or can be accessed via phone line."

"Anytime, Anywhere"

"The good news about technology is we can work anytime, anywhere. The bad news about technology is we can work anytime, anywhere," Gordon said in May at the Government Technology Conference in Sacramento, Calif.

The good-news/bad-news scenario is demonstrated by many people each day, but that demonstration is usually done in the office first. Employees, Gordon said, must meet expectations, and telecommuting shouldn't be an option for people who don't match or exceed requirements.

"We can't measure productivity or effectiveness away from the office any better than we can in the office," Gordon said. "I have witnessed the search for this Holy Grail of telecommuting measurement for years. If we don't know what they're doing when they come into the building five days a week, how can we possibly know with any more precision what they're doing when they telecommute a few days a week?

"Interestingly, this realization is one of the accidental benefits of telecommuting," Gordon continued. "The search for that perfect measurement method for telecommuters sometimes causes smart managers to realize that they need to become more disciplined and serious about work measurement in the office -- something that is long overdue in most organizations."

Telecommuting Options

Telecommuting doesn't necessarily mean working from the home exclusively; working in a "satellite" office or on the road are other telecommuting options.

The latest option to join the fold is "hoteling" -- which is exactly like it sounds -- in what is called a "telecommuting center." Britt said employees can call their office or a telecommuting center and reserve a space for a few hours, a day or any length of time needed. Before the employee arrives for work, files and personal belongings -- including family photos and a favorite coffee mug -- are placed on the desk. When the employee leaves, the items are placed in a personal storage bin. And, as when reserving a room in a hotel, employees may not be given the same desk or cubicle the next time a reservation is made.

High Expectations

While concepts including hoteling have shed new light on telework, Gordon and Britt are quick to note that telecommuting is not for everyone. The situation has to be right -- for everyone. The right jobs, right people and right managers are keys to successful telecommuting.

For more information, contact Sandy Britt, GSA regional systems chief, at 817/978-4863. Also contact Gil Gordon, president, Gil Gordon Associates, at 732/329-2266.

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