TELECOMMUTING Bosses fear employees won't do homework

April 13, 1992|By Kathleen Murray | Kathleen Murray,Orange County Register

IRVINE, CALIFORNIA TXB — IRVINE, Calif. -- Everyone expected Sally McManus to have quite the life when she started working at home one day a week.

Her friends joked that she would be at her desk in a bathrobe and curlers. Her boss suggested that she do laundry between phone calls. And there were always her children to play with.

Now, six months later, Ms. McManus, 40, a technical writer from Unisys Corp., often wears work clothes when telecommuting. She figures that she puts in at least as many hours at her home in Irvine as she would at the office in Mission Viejo, Calif. And Ms. McManus is interrupted most often by staffers -- not her daughters, who spend the day in school and at day care.

As for the laundry?

"I tried to put a load in once," she said, laughing. "And I got so busy I forgot to put it in the dryer. My life really hasn't changed that much except I'm doing my work at a different location."

For all the futuristic rhetoric about the pros and cons of telecommuting, Ms. McManus is the simple reality, experts say. By working at home she avoids an hour commute, but still keeps in touch with the office and gets the job done.

But the program at Unisys that allows her to do so remains the exception in corporate life. Despite predictions that telecommuting is the way of the future, many employers are still reluctant to permit it, consultants say.

"It can be summed up in three words," said John Hermann, a human resources consultant in Irvine. "Loss of control. Employers fear that employees left unsupervised will end up at the beach," he said.

Fourteen percent of large U.S. corporations have programs allowing employees to work at home, according to Link Resources, a New York-based company that tracks telecommuting.

Fifty-three percent of employers allow flexible scheduling, according to a similar survey by Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting company.

Smaller companies with fewer resources tend to be more flexible. Link estimates that 4.86 million employees at these businesses work from their homes, although many own the company.

Expense is one barrier commonly cited. Unless an employee has a computer, management often must provide one. Then there is the expense of a modem, printer, business phone line and answering machine. Other managers say their employees haven't requested it, or the type of work isn't conducive to telecommuting.

"Our employees work on a task force basis," said Deborah Land, a spokeswoman for engineering giant Fluor Corp. in Irvine. "It would be really difficult if our people were at home because they'd be out of the loop."

Instead, Fluor offers flexible workweeks that allow employees to work 9-hour days and get every other Friday off.

Yet, proponents of telecommuting say many managers make it more complicated than necessary.

Carol Nolan coordinates Pacific Bell's 5-year-old telecommuting program and advises other employers. She notes that not all employees need a computer to work from home. An accounting manager or attorney, for example, might use the day for reading or completing a project. A salesperson might write reports, or make phone calls without interruption.

"Telecommuting can be as simple as taking an in-basket home," Ms. Nolan said.

Most professions, she said, lend themselves to telecommuting if their tasks are broken down and reorganized.

"My favorite example is that a brain surgeon needs to be in the operating room for surgery, but there is a lot of research and talking to colleagues that he can do at home," she said.

Many studies show possible productivity gains of 5 to 20 percent when employees work from home. Many say they work harder because they feel it is a privilege. Others say they get more done because there are fewer distractions.

But top management can be hard to convince.

"Some U.S. managers are only comfortable with what I call the prison style of management," said Paul Rupert, president of New Ways to Work, a San Francisco-based research and consulting company. "Prison guards count their inmates in the morning and watch them. If a supervisor isn't doing this, he feels he isn't doing his job."

Mr. Rupert and Ms. Nolan believe that can be overcome if managers are willing to learn new styles of supervision.

That means measuring an employee's output instead of constantly monitoring what he or she is doing. At Allergan Inc., some employees in the research and development department have been experimenting with telecommuting since 1988.

To gauge productivity, the Irvine-based biotechnology company sets objectives for each employee. Performance is measured against those objectives.

Telecommuters at Allergan keep in touch with the main office by phone or computer. To ensure that they are doing their jobs, they are required to work during regular working hours.

"Since most of the people are statisticians, they have a certain amount of data to produce," said Bob Pardue, director of human resources for Allergan. "The bottom line is, they need to get the work done,"

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