Businesses have more reasons to embrace what used to be called telecommuting.
By DAVE GUSSOW
Published June 5, 2006
Soaring gas prices after Hurricane Katrina last year led George Gordon to a different route for his business. Telecommuting was now on the map.
[Times photos: Mike Pease]
Sheila Martin, a planner for Bay Area Commuter Services, works from a home office set up in a spare bedroom of her Carrollwood home. Martin has worked this way for more than two years.
Karen Gatto, director of administrative services for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, works from her north Tampa home some days instead of driving to 49th Street near Largo. “When I telecommute, I largely do e-mail and projects that require quiet time that I don’t get in the office,’’ said Gatto, 41.
[Times photos: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Adam Salgado, an information technologies specialist, spends up to two days a week at home for his job at Enporion. He uses his home desktop and a company laptop to do his job.
"Employees appreciated it,'' said Gordon, chief executive of Enporion in Tampa, which creates supply chain management systems for businesses. "I think they're equally as productive (at home) as they are here."
Gordon set only a couple rules for his 32 employees, almost all of whom participate: First, they had to forward their phones and be reachable, even using instant messages. Second, they can work no more than two days a week at home.
Gas prices remain high, but they are not the sole driving force in an uptick in interest in telecommuting, now often called telework. Some businesses see it as part of a continuity plan in case a hurricane closes their offices. Some find it a less expensive alternative to building or renting more space as they grow. Some consider it a perk for employees.
And some advocates say it's a way to get cars off congested roads. The average commuter drives 32 miles round trip a day, or more than 8,000 miles a year, according to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. It advocates telework to reduce demand for gas and, it says, drive down prices.
A report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released in May estimated 20-million workers telecommute. In the Tampa Bay region, the number of workers who telework has increased from about
1 percent in a 2001 survey to 9 percent last year. Yet the number of companies that offer telework options in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties is a modest
More companies likely make it available, says Sandra Moody, executive director of Bay Area Commuter Services, but they don't want to talk about it.
"They don't have anything formal and they don't want anything formal," Moody said. "They're trying to keep it under the radar. Businesses are afraid that people will demand it as a benefit, which it is not. ... It's a privilege.''
Bay Area Commuter Services, which serves a five-county area, works under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Transportation to promote alternatives to driving to work alone. It consults with private businesses, government agencies and others.
When gas prices spike, companies seek the agency's help. But hurricanes the past two years and the need to keep businesses operating after storms have been a bigger factor.
"Last September when gas got to
$3 (a gallon), everybody was panicking," Moody said. "We couldn't meet with people fast enough. This time, when it approached $3, we had none of that frenzy."
It may take prices rising to perhaps $3.50 a gallon to generate more interest from businesses for telework, she says.
The bursting of the tech bubble may have slowed talk of telework, but advances in technology make it easier for people to work from home or other locations. The mobile work force has grown, with one study saying home-based workers can have more than three workplaces.
"People are increasingly comfortable working from a distance," said Debra A. Dinnocenzo, a consultant and author of several books, including 101 Tips for Telecommuters. "Technology has gotten better, (its) capabilities faster, cheaper (to buy) and we have BlackBerries now that we didn't have six years ago."
Limiting the number of days isn't unusual, Dinnocenzo says, especially when the company is in the same town as the employee. And for some companies, it's important to have face time in the office.
"As a small company, building (a corporate) culture is important to us," said Gordon of Enporion, also president of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. "You tend not to build a company culture if everyone's working virtually."
While Gordon jumped in to telework with no formal plan, Jessica White of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, who works on the Telework Tampa Bay project, says the agency recommends a slower process for companies to follow.
The agency suggests a six-month pilot project with a group of employees. A company should develop policies and training, and follow the test period with a survey.
"It allows them to see where weaknesses are and fix that up before they open it to more people," White said.
One of the key elements in persuading companies to at least give telework a try is overcoming the idea that an employee has to be in the office - and watched - to ensure productivity.
"It's really hard for some employers to completely trust their employees," White said. "It's having them out of their view. As long as they look busy (in the office), they feel they have some control.''
The solution to build that trust, experts say, is to set goals that employees have to meet while working at home. If it's successful, the employer and employee benefit.
"Telecommuting I believe is now a critical strategic business initiative," Dinnocenzo said. "It's beyond a fun, perk thing we do for employees.''
Dave Gussow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4165. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/tech.
Sheila Martin: Leading by example Sheila Martin can go days without showing up in her office. But that's her job. If she's not working at home, she's attending meetings. The topic: telework. Her job: planner for Bay Area Commuter Services.
"My job is really a perfect kind of job for a teleworker," said Martin, 60.
Her normal commute of 11.7 miles from her home in Carrollwood to her office in the Westshore area can take 20 minutes in off-peak driving, up to 90 minutes during rush hour, particularly if there's even a minor accident along the way.
During the 20 years she has lived here, Martin says, roads have been widened and improved. But that has been offset by increased congestion.
Martin often attends meetings in Pasco, Pinellas and elsewhere, so she can save time and money by where it makes more sense to start her day at home, then drive to the meeting.
Martin has a high-speed Internet connection, though she says some big data files for the office don't transmit well, such as her work with databases. And she's always reachable by phone and computer.
Working alone doesn't bother her, and her cat Georgio knows better than to interrupt her.
"Some people aren't comfortable in that environment,'' Martin said. "I've become a good teleworker. I don't need to have the daily interaction (in an office)."
She finds herself working a bit longer at home, starting her day earlier because she doesn't have to drive. But she tries to monitor her routine.
"I try to take the same normal breaks," Martin said. "If you don't do that, you're going to be sitting at the computer too long."
Karen Gatto: The boss leads
Karen Gatto supervises four departments for the Sixth Judicial Circuit as the director of administrative services. Yet she manages to work from home at least occasionally.
"When I telecommute, I largely do e-mail and projects that require quiet time that I don't get in the office," said Gatto, 41.
Her commute usually runs 45 minutes to an hour from her home near the Citrus Park Mall in Tampa to the courthouse on 49th Street near Largo. When she gets back to her office after a telework day, it's not unusual for her staff to be lined up waiting for her.
"You really do need to be in the office with this kind of job," Gatto said. "They really tolerate me teleworking."
In her departments, about 25 people participate in the telework program. It began informally, when, for example, employees recuperating from illness asked to take laptop computers home.
The circuit decided to make it a formal program about 18 months ago, including training. Not all jobs in the court system qualify for telework, and policies are clear: It's all work. No child care allowed.
"They have to assure us that someone is watching their child," Gatto said. "Most people think I can just telework and look after a child. We feel it's too much of a distraction."
Gas prices are an issue for government employees, Gatto says, who wonders if higher costs will make it difficult to keep employees.
It also takes focus, planning and organization to telework successfully, Gatto says. Work material needs to be packed before leaving the office ahead of telework. You have to know what needs to be accomplished.
"The first time I did it I was exhausted," Gatto said. "I'm super-vigilant. You learn it's okay if you go into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, to get refocused."
Adam Salgado: a long dayAdam Salgado works long days at home.
"I tend to lose track of time when I'm home," said Salgado, 28, e-commerce platform manager for Enporion. "You wake up, you start work and you're not looking at the clock to see what time you're leaving."
Salgado's 10-15-mile commute through Tampa can take 45 minutes or more during rush hour, perhaps
25 minutes other times. So he appreciates the ability to work at home up to twice a week.
From a work standpoint, Salgado says there's little difference whether he works at home or the office. His team at Enporion is scattered in California and Florida, and employees know how to interact from a distance.
But it takes some adjustment, as his work schedule indicates. "You want to get up and see what's in the fridge, maybe make yourself something to eat and go back to work," Salgado said.
He dresses more casually, and when his wife is at home, he shuts his office door - and locks it - to avoid distractions.
"I'm not sure that works for everyone," he said.
DID YOU KNOW?
* There are 20-million telecommuters in the United States.
* The average commuter drives 32 miles a day, roundtrip for work, or 8,000 miles a year.
* The number of workers telecom-muting in Tampa Bay increased from 1 percent to 9 percent from 2001 to 2005.
* Only 14 percent of companies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties offer telework options.
On the Web * Bay Area Commuter Services: www.tampabayrideshare.org
* Telework Tampa Bay: www.teleworktampabay.org
[Last modified June 5, 2006, 06:50:10]
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