- By Heather Harreld
- Apr 03, 2000
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
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,"
Even if the productivity is working out, managers must still watch for
"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,
"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
"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
Ironically, the technology department is sometimes in the Stone Age,
"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
"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.