One day each week, Charles Rapier works from his Chicago high-rise apartment instead of Ovation Research Group's corporate headquarters in Highland Park, Ill. On that day, Rapier forgoes a 90-minute commute each way on I-94, an interstate that resembles a parking lot during rush hour. Avoiding gridlock is a nice perk, but it's not why Ovation encourages its management team to telework once a week. The real reason is to give managers a break-out from the day-to-day havoc and hustle of the office. It frees Rapier and others to devote the day to strategic projects, giving them precious "thought time." "I get a lot of work done on those days and push out a lot of new projects that I cannot get to when I'm in the office," says Rapier.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 4.2 percent of Americans work from home on a semi-permanent basis, a 23 percent increase from 1990. Of that number, 75 percent work for private companies, 12 percent are self-employed, 4 percent work at nonprofits and 4 percent work in the public sector. The International Telework Association and Council (ITAC) in Silver Spring, Md., estimates that 23.5 million American employees worked from home in 2003. That figure includes people who worked from home on a semi-permanent basis as well as those who worked from home just one day per month.
While the number of teleworkers is growing, the arrangement is not for every employee or every business. For example, it doesn't make sense for retail salespeople, where face-to-face contact is essential. Nevertheless, the Census reports that 25 percent of salespeople telework on a weekly basis. And only 10 percent of people with administrative jobs work from home, while 44 percent of teleworkers are managers or other professionals.
The key to successful telecommuting is to understand which jobs are best suited to teleworking and which individuals can handle working in an unstructured environment.
Our policy on working remotely is evolving here at Peregrine Outfitters, a wholesale distributor of outdoor equipment. Some jobs lend themselves to working remotely. Our controller, for example, is a single mother who telecommutes on a regular basis. Other jobs, such as warehouse workers, require one to be onsite. We explored telecommuting for our sales force, but decided that our sales representatives need to have face-to-face contact with our customers and other parts of the organization.
As president, my job does not require my being physically present every day. I can be more productive when I'm working in a more relaxed atmosphere. At the office, it is hard to avoid getting caught up in the day-to-day issues of running a business. But I have other people to handle those areas. The key to operating a small business is to trust your employees with some of the responsibilities of running the company. In my 18 years in business, the most important lesson I've learned is to make sure to hire a good team of people—people with skills that are different from and complementary to my own. In fact, my staff sometimes points out that things work better when I'm not in the office.
Ovation Research, which conducts research on drug outcomes, has 14 full-time teleworkers scattered throughout Washington, Virginia, Tennessee, Colorado and California. And these employees, all of whom work from home full time, present some of our most significant challenges.
Technologically, we've established some practices that make it easier to support teleworkers. For example, we have Web collaboration utilities, remote control devices on their laptops to assist with maintenance and support, virtual private network and Web authentication services in addition to an intranet site. We also have established certain procedures to ensure that our data are consistent.
But the emotional disconnect that the distance creates is probably the hardest thing to overcome. Partly, this is due to the nature of our firm's work. We research and analyze data on drug outcomes, so our company is IT intensive and we're involved in many specialized applications. Whenever we launch a new application or analytical approach, the teleworkers feel left out because they don't have face-to-face access to their peers or with the IT staff. They don't realize that Joe at the main office keeps forgetting the correct sequence just as frequently as they do.
We've tried to counter these feelings by providing more answers on the company intranet and by spending more time on training.
There's an upside to telecommuting as well. We save money because we don't have to lease office space. The telecommuting option also enhances our ability to attract and retain highly specialized employees. Finding specific skill sets in the drug-research-outcomes arena is difficult. Once we've found a candidate with a medical degree and three Ph.D.s (in pharmacology, economics and statistics), our chances of hiring that individual increase if we don't require him or her to relocate.
Marina Administration is part of a larger organization, so we're remote from some key decision-makers, including our CEO. But with our network and our technology, we feel like we're down the hall from each other even though we're scattered across the state.
Most of our employees work at our retail stores or the marinas. Allowing certain employees to telework when needed helps with retention. In some situations, I'll let staff members work from home. For example, the other day our controller had an appointment, so she worked from home. But teleworking is not for every employee. For example, our receptionist must be here to answer the phones.
I have two phones—one at home and one in the office. They're both Voice over Internet Protocol phones, so the caller receives that same phone presence anytime the phone rings. With two phones, unless I have the flu or the dog barks, I can work seamlessly from home.
When I was recovering from back surgery, I had to work from home because I could not move. For me, it was important to be productive and work on engaging things while I was recovering.
The benefit of telecommuting is flexibility, but a disadvantage is how it affects personal relationships. To telecommute, you rely on the phone, fax and e-mail. But it's critical to meet people and put a face with a name, so I try not to rely too much on teleworking.
We offer classes through the Florida Virtual School, which allows high school students to take courses online. As with telecommuting, it allows students more flexibility.
But whether you're telecommuting to school or work, it puts more responsibility on the person to actually do the work. Gone are the days of schmoozing your way through a course or a job. You might have a great personality, but it won't show up much in e-mail.
In an office setting, your boss can see you multitasking, handling three or four things at once. So when you say, 'I might need an extra day' for something, they will understand because they've witnessed you in action. They might not be as understanding if you telework since they don't see how hard you work or what you produce. Over time, however, you can develop a strong relationship even online, by establishing a record for producing good work, on time.
Additional reporting by Wylie Wong.
Here are a few situations where teleworking might make sense for your business: