PHONING IT IN: The telecommute

Working at home can work — but only under the right circumstances

Paul Van Metre, one of three owners of Pro CNC, a Bellingham-based manufacturing company, began working from home part time after his wife had their second child. He had to admit that his production suffered, but said that teleworking can succeed in the right instance.

Dan Hiestand
   John Shorthill likes to hit the ground running when it comes to his workday, and usually his first efforts come long before he arrives at the office — often from the comfort of his home.
   “People aren’t surprised to see an e-mail from me about 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning,” said Shorthill, the executive director at Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County. While working from home is not a new thing, it is something that may be a more desirable option for employers, especially in an age of increasingly higher-tech home offices and ballooning gas prices.
   However, not every person or every company is suited for telecommuting (also called teleworking), and the practice does have its pitfalls.

All you need is a pencil, paper and telephone
   Telecommuting is a fairly straightforward concept: working from a place other than the office. Part time or full time, it’s all telecommuting.
   According to information posted on the American Telecommuting Association (ATA) Web site, many people confuse telecommuting with telecomputing. “You can telecommute with only a paper, pencil, and telephone,” declares the Web site. “And you can even leave out the telephone if all you’re doing is reading and thinking.”
   The ATA — a Washington, D.C.-based group — defines telecommuters in broad terms, including, “everyone from computer programmers … to an executive who stays at home one morning to study a complex contract, to a data-entry clerk who works on a desktop in her spare bedroom, to a salesperson who rarely leaves the territory in which he lives and works.”
   For Shorthill, the telework concept seems to be a viable option. Getting up early has been a habit for him since he was in graduate school, when he had to combine studies and full-time employment. Often, the only spare time he had for school work or free time was early in the morning — as in “4:30 in the morning,” morning.
   “I kind of liked it,” said Shorthill. “Everybody is still quiet and asleep – even the dog.” Now, he gets up closer to 5:30 a.m., but early-morning work is still a big part of his routine. After a few hours at the computer, or perhaps reading over materials, Shorthill heads to the office by mid-morning.
   Working from home is not for everyone, said Paul Van Metre, one of three owners of Pro CNC, a Bellingham-based manufacturing company that deals with machine parts and customers in industries ranging from aerospace to the medical field.
   This past February, soon after his wife gave birth to the couple’s second child, Van Metre decided to take his work home with him. For nearly a month, he worked part time at home, and part time in the office. When he was at home, he used a high-speed Internet connection to log into the internal network of his company using a virtual private network.
   “I wanted to do it to be home with my wife,” he said. “I wanted to be supportive with a little baby in the house.” While Van Metre said he was grateful for the opportunity to work at home, he admitted his work production wasn’t quite as efficient as it would have been at the office.
   “It was definitely a bit harder to get things done in the allotted work time,” Van Metre said, mentioning the challenges of functioning around his 4-year-old son. In addition, he said, the speed of his Internet connection at home was not as fast as his office connection, and that he struggled at times with a lack of face-to-face communication with his colleagues.
   “If someone does need something answered and you are not around to answer that question, it will cause delays,” he said. He could also see how teleworking may affect your social skills and office camaraderie.
   “If you teleworked the majority of the time, you wouldn’t have the sort of connection with your co-workers you normally would,” he said.

Is teleworking right for your company?
   In addition to outside distractions, equipment shortcomings and communication issues, telework is not suited to every job or every employee, said Steve Gerritson. Gerritson is the executive director with Commuter Challenge, a nonprofit organization focused on finding solutions to transportation issues in the Seattle area as well as a teleworking advocacy group.
   “(The teleworking employee) should be a self-starter, someone who is able to work without a lot of supervision,” Gerritson said. “It’s not the right person as much as it is having the right job.” Jobs that require a physical presence, such as a customer service agent, are obviously not a good fit, while an employee who works mainly from a computer may be able to take it home, he said.
   Gerritson’s organization kicked off an outreach program last June in partnership with King County Metro that included new and updated case studies, marketing materials, online tools and workshops on teleworking. He estimated that approximately 20 percent of all companies in the Puget Sound have employees that telework at least one day per week, although the exact number is hard to calculate because many companies practice it informally.
   “We were talking to a company not too long ago, and we asked them if they have any employees who telework,” Gerritson said. “They said ‘no.’ So we asked to speak to the human-resources director, and they said, ‘He’s working at home today, so he’s not here.’ The total number of teleworkers is very difficult to quantify.”
   Gerritson said there are many positives when it comes to teleworking, and not just cutting out commute times. Many employers find that offering a telework option helps them recruit and retain top-notch employees, increases productivity, extends customer service hours, boosts employee morale, reduces the need for office space and parking, and improves emergency preparedness, Gerritson said.
   For example, if there is an earthquake or a terrorist strike and the main office is disabled, the company can continue to function from the outside using teleworkers, he said.
   When it comes to the cons, employer trust is the most common concern, he said.
   “The biggest objection to teleworking I hear is that my employees are going to goof off,” he said. On the contrary, Gerritson said. His organization, as well as others, has done surveys to show just the opposite: teleworkers often work more than the 40-hour work week.
   Added Shorthill: “If a person has accountability, I think it can be really effective,” he said. “But some people aren’t cut out for telecommuting.”
   “Teleworking is a privilege, not a right. And teleworkers don’t want to mess up a good thing,” Gerritson said, adding that he often teleworks himself — as do both his employees.
   However, the most obvious incentive for teleworking is the lack of a commute. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spend more than 100 hours commuting to work each year, according to studies done in 2003. In Washington state, the average was 24.8 minutes — a statewide average skewed by heavier traffic volumes in the Seattle metropolitan area.
   When asked whether Bellingham is a more conducive environment for telecommuting compared to Seattle, Gerritson said the differences are negligible.
   “I think the impacts on companies themselves are pretty much the same,” Gerritson said. In a town like Bellingham, where traffic jams and commute times pale in comparison to a city such as Seattle, you may not notice a big impact on easing traffic congestion, he said. “It may be less obvious in the community. But everything is relative. Rush hour is still rush hour. Anything that helps is all the better.”
   As far as working a longer workweek is concerned, Shorthill said, he doesn’t make it a habit to work more than 40 hours per week.
   “I have a switch, I just turn off,” he said.
   Van Metre said his company doesn’t have plans to offer a teleworking option to employees, but he would be open to it if they wanted it and it was the right fit.
   “The most important thing is keeping employees happy,” he said.

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