Homeward Bound

Telecommuting appears to have everything going for it.

It's now possible to create a virtual office with all the technological

trappings of the physical workplace. Some pollution-fighting states even

mandate their agencies and businesses to support telecommuting to get cars

off the roads. And pilot projects are taking root because they free up office

space, offer employees flexibility and improve workers' morale.

Although telecommuting has overcome logistics issues, something much

more subtle is keeping it from gaining mass acceptance. The problem? A traditional

workplace reluctant to change.

And change must happen for telecommuting to succeed.

Managers say allowing employees to work from home demands a paradigm

shift — throughout the office. Middle managers must adjust their management

styles, co-workers need to adapt and telecommuters have to redefine the

way they work.

"Telecommuting isn't brain surgery," said Kathy King, transportation

manager for Oregon's Office of Energy. "It's very easy to implement, but

it's breaking down the barriers."

The biggest cultural blocks to telecommuting stem from managers uneasy

about having employees out of the traditional work environment, she said.

"The fear that managers have is that everyone will want to telecommute,

and they will be gone all the time," King said "The old-style managers who

believe you had to walk around and look at people are retiring. The thing

that will move it along the fastest...is a lot of the new, progressive managers

coming in."

Given the benefits of telecommuting, a number of states are taking measures

to address management concerns.

To alleviate managers' worries, telecommuting officials in Oregon have created

toolkits that include videotapes that provide an overview of telecommuting.

The tapes include testimonials from managers who have had employees work

from home. The videos are geared to dispel common myths, such as the perception

that people who usually work five days a week work only one or two days

when they telecommute.

The toolkit also includes a workbook to take the manager and the employee

step by step through the application and approval process. A draft work

agreement details the parameters of the telecommuting arrangement.

"We really take a stance of educating, trying to help managers understand,''

King said. "It does give them the ability to be more successful themselves."

In Utah, 20 percent to 25 percent of the 400 employees at the state's

Department of Environmental Quality telecommute a maximum of two days per

week. Sonja Wallace, pollution prevention coordinator with the department,

said it seems the biggest telecommuting roadblock in Utah is that the boss's

view of success is based on the number of bodies in the office.

"You have to get deadlines and goals that are based upon the performance

of the person, not how much time they spend in the office," she said.

To help managers with that issue, the department has developed a performance

plan that outlines the exact tasks an employee should perform at home and

includes other ways to measure a telecommuter's performance, said Dan Brentel,

human resources director at the department.

In Hennepin County, Minn., where 402 of the county's 12,000 workers

telecommute, most departments require telecommuters to do more work to make

up for the lack of a commute, said Deb Holweger, communications systems

specialist for the county.

Telecommuters usually must increase productivity by at least 10 percent,

she said, which is measured by an increased caseload or a higher level of

calls handled or data entry performed. This increased productivity is reviewed

monthly or quarterly. The county can monitor the time during the day when

telecommuters are dialing into internal networks. Holweger said most telecommuters

work more than an eight-hour day.

"There's no question that they're definitely pulling their weight,"

she said.

Even if the productivity is working out, managers must still watch for

co-worker resentment.

"The greatest cultural shift is one that happens at the workplace, [starting]

with people believing if a person is not in the workplace that they're gone,"

said Dee Christensen, telework program manager for Washington State University's

Cooperative Extension Program. "Often they say, "Oh, that's right, you don't

work on Tuesdays,' when in fact they're only a phone call away."

David Fleming is the telework program consultant in California, where

50 of 150 state agencies participate in telecommuting programs. Without

careful planning, telecommuting can create bad feelings in a workplace,

he said.

"If an employee is teleworking two or three days a week, does that mean

that the remaining workers are going to get the brush fires and increased

stress?" he asked.

To solve this problem, Fleming suggested that the entire office devise

a schedule to fairly distribute the unexpected "brush fires" that may have

to be handled when a teleworker is out. For example, perhaps a telecommuter

can assume responsibility for all the unexpected, urgent work on one scheduled

day every week to relieve others, he said.

Fleming also suggests that managers honestly inform resentful coworkers

about the reasons why they have not been approved to work from home. If

performance is not up to par, explain that to the employee, he suggested.

"If you take up the role of coach/mentor, that really gets to the heart

of the problem," he said.

Other states offer alternatives to employees who cannot telecommute,

such as working a four-day week.

Telecommuters themselves must be prepared for their own cultural changes.

Although telecommuters usually volunteer, some program managers say as many

as one-third of all workers who begin telecommuting stop because they find

their personality and work habits are not suited to it.

Some miss the social aspect of working with colleagues. Others need

more direction than they can get at home. And telecommuting can aggravate

already strained boss-employee relationships.

"There must be trust involved," Fleming said. "To take the problem and

move it out of the office is not the best solution."

Also, citizens can be affected when state and local government workers

telecommute. Agencies need to ensure that the remote workers are always

reachable.

"The job always has to come first," Oregon's King said. "If you have

a customer who wants to meet with you on your telecommuting day, you may

decide not to telecommute that day. You make sure that if you get a lot

of calls that you can get back to them quickly."

In Utah, a crucial part of the program is ensuring that customer-support

workers who have direct contact with customers always know the whereabouts

of teleworkers, Brentel said. Since the program began, he has had only one

call from a customer complaining that they have not been able to reach a

telecommuter, he said.

In Washington, almost all state agencies have telecommuting programs,

but some have been much more successful than others, Christensen said. The

success largely depends on how well institutionalized the program is. "The

more established, the more command and control-oriented the agency was,

the more difficult it was to establish a telework program," she said. "The

more innovative and the more entrepreneurial agencies were, the easier it

was to establish a program."

In addition, agencies must make telecommuting a priority, not merely

view it as an accessory program, she said.

"The more successful ones are those that look at not only taking care

of the technical aspects, but taking care of technical support. It's not

really a program anymore. It's one of the things that best practices organizations

are doing today," Christensen said. "They're shaking up what we used to

think of as work."

Though the technology is usually the least of an agency's telecommuting

worries, the equipment needs at some agencies are still a struggle.

In Arizona, where 15 percent of the state's 3,000-member work force

telecommutes at least once a week, remote workers are not routinely provided

with a computer, said John Corbett, Arizona's telework program administrator.

Because agency heads have not been able to build a business case for

telecommuting, telecommuters buy their own equipment or use computers they

already have at home. Corbett said the IT department believes that providing

laptops for employees to use from home creates security problems when they

connect to agency internal networks.

Corbett called this concern a "smoke screen," saying the department's

real issue is the fear of having to add technical support. The department

was spooked when a program that donated free computers — minus software — to state telecommuters produced a deluge of requests for them, Corbett

said.

Ironically, the technology department is sometimes in the Stone Age,

he said.

"The cultural change that has to happen is you actually have [to have]

connectivity. It hasn't been happening. People at home need to be supported,

and that scares the living daylights out of the IT folks at work,'' he said.

Overcoming all those issues is key for telecommuting programs to receive

the increased funding they need to continue to grow and thrive, Corbett

said.

"We've got 15 percent of our state population telecommuting a day a

week without a huge financial commitment," he said. "If we're going to do

more and go higher, we've got to make a business case."

—Heather Harreld is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.

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