Telecommuting To Extremes

But it pays to learn the ropes by working in the home office first


Paula Brantner's job as a program director for a nonprofit group is centered in San Francisco.

But she works from her home in Silver Spring.

Brantner is a long-distance telecommuter - and has been for more than four years.

She makes up just a sliver of the work force that is employed in a home office that is far from the company's main headquarters. Yet a number of businesses have gone to geographic extremes by allowing workers to telecommute full time - even if they live halfway around the world.

"I would highly recommend it," said Brantner, 39, who supervises three workers in San Francisco through e-mail, teleconferencing and trips to California a few times a year for face time with her employees.

Some companies allow such moves in hopes of expanding their hiring pools and finding the best employees, regardless of location. But employers and telecommuters say such working habits are not for everyone.

"Your job has to be right for it," said Sid Heaton, a technical writer for a California software company who telecommuted while traveling through Europe in 1999. "Everybody pictures technology as freeing, but there's a real dark, enslaving side to that. If the office is everywhere, then should you always be at the office? You don't get down time that you need."

Experts doubt extreme telecommuting will one day dominate the workplace centscm+RDmkane:simplybecause most workers - and their bosses - need the social interaction that comes with the office setting. Several bosses also struggle with managing workers far from headquarters who cannot visit the office if they are needed immediately.

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"My guess is [extreme telecommuting] will continue to be the exception," said Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, a telecommuting consulting company for employers.

"The question mark is not about technology, but simply a matter of getting over some of the employers' reluctance to have somebody work that way at a distance without having them acclimated to the organization."

Last year, about 12 million people telecommuted full time - a number nearly unchanged from 2004, according to a survey by the Dieringer Research Group for the International Telework Association and Council. An earlier study from the Dieringer Group showed 8.8 million people telecommuted full time in 2003.

The data was taken from random telephone surveys of about 1,000 U.S. adults in 2004 and 2005.

The number of people who telecommute overall steadily increased from 2001 to 2005. Figures show about 17 million telecommuted at least one day a month in 2001. The figure rose to 26.1 million by 2005, according to the Dieringer Group.

Several full-time, long-distance telecommuters said the process works well when a worker knows the company and its culture and has strong relationships with colleagues in the office.

Brantner said she began telecommuting in January 2002 as an experiment. A friend had started a nonprofit group, Workplace Fairness, which promotes workplace rights and public policy. As both acting executive director and program director, Brantner said she has a good relationship with her staff members - though she does not see them that often.

"It's a tech-savvy institution," she said. "We're used to doing things in e-mails and conference calls."

Heaton, of Nevada City, Calif., said younger employees, especially those looking for promotions, need the social ties only an office environment can provide to strengthen their career paths. He said workers who do not have experience managing their time may not do well either.

"If I was 24, then yes, being at the office would be kind of cool," said Heaton, 38.

Michael Amigoni, chief operating officer for ARO Inc., a call center in Kansas City that has used the full-time telecommuting model since 1997 for most of its employees, said younger workers often want the social stimulation an office provides. ARO outsources telephone calls for the medical, health care, financial and insurance services fields.

To help with the younger-worker problem, ARO reaches out to its home agents through instant messaging, e-newsletters and invitations to "Muffins with Managers," which provides employees in the area an opportunity to go into the office to have breakfast with management.

"You have to work harder as a company to keep everybody not feeling isolated," Amigoni said.

However, because most of ARO's telecommuters are "mature baby boomers," many of them don't mind the lack of interaction, Amigoni said. He added that nearly all 200 of the company's employees work from home. The longest telecommute is from Arizona.

"We can recruit better people now than we ever could, and we can focus on matching people to the types of work that we have," Amigoni said.

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