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When home becomes office

Workers see telecommuting as a chance to balance personal and professional life while employers see it as a way to cut office costs.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2000

Horizon Marketing Group started from a home office because it couldn't afford to rent commercial space. Now, Horizon has 32 offices -- all at staffers' homes.

"We don't know what it would be like under the same roof," said Horizon founding partner Bob Watson, 38, in his office with a view of his back yard in St. Petersburg. His wife and son are nearby, and his dog Leah is sniffing at the closed door.

Horizon's only concession to a traditional office is space it recently leased in Ybor City where staffers can meet to collaborate or visit with clients. Otherwise, home is where the work is.

The officeless office is still relatively rare. But it underscores the broader trend toward telecommuting, which allows workers to do their jobs remotely part or all of the time. Telecommuting has gone from a curiosity to mainstream in the past 10 years, first fueled by home computers and fax machines and more recently by the Internet, fast connections, cell phones and other gadgets that allow people to stay in touch from anywhere.

Telecommuting tips

Telecommuting requires more than a desire to work at home. To be successful, telecommuters have to master certain skills, including staying in touch with their co-workers in the company's office, according to Debra A. Dinnocenzo, author of 101 Tips for Telecommuters ($15.95, Berrett-Koehler Publishers). Here are some of her tips on that score:

  • Keep your boss informed: " 'Out of sight, out of mind' is a major fear of telecommuters, and, depending upon the working style of your manager, it may be a bona fide fear."
  • Be (creatively) accessible by phone: "The sense that you are accessible, in spite of your telecommuting function, is vital to your success -- especially if you are a team or project leader, supervisor, sales manager, account executive or resident expert."
  • Don't ignore those who resent you: "Depending on who these folks are, how critical they are to your success, how influential they are in the organization and how effectively you handle situations, their impact can range from mild annoyance to a serious undermining of your credibility and effectiveness."
  • Stay on track for promotions (and other good deals): "Isolation and fear of being overlooked for promotion are two of the biggest fears telecommuters typically report, and probably for good reason."
  • Know when to ask for help: "Your ability and desire to function independently can lead to an inordinate (and counterproductive) desire to get things done without the help of others."
  • Determine the need for "live" interactions: "Whether these be "live voice' (e.g., phone or videoconference) or face-to-face interactions, some situations will warrant your investment of time, effort and money to connect with people on a real-time basis."
  • Manage the performance management process: "Managers don't know if on-site workers or telecommuters are getting their jobs done unless a meaningful performance evaluation process is in place that measures more than "face time.' "
  • Reach agreements that foster commitment and collaboration: "Without clear agreements, you run the risk of diminished work standards, missed deadlines, delayed shipments, lack of follow-through, disappointed customers and increased stress and frustration on the part of everyone, as well as declines in your productivity and achievement goals."
  • Just say no: "You're more vulnerable to requests or expectations from family, friends and co-workers due to misperceptions about your availability."

-- Dinnocenzo's advice also is available at

"There's much greater awareness about it," said Debra A. Dinnocenzo, author of 101 Tips for Telecommuters. "Five years ago, it was much more informal."

Telecommuting has won attention from workers, many of them seeking a better balance between personal and professional lives. From businesses, looking at ways to cut costs on office space. And, at least briefly, from the federal bureaucracy, which bumbled into an uproar by checking to see if it's a workplace issue that needs regulating.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration got into hot water with workers, businesses and Congress when it said companies were responsible for health and safety conditions in their employees' home offices, including furniture, lighting and ventilation. OSHA quickly backed off.

Experts say some people consider telecommuting for the wrong reasons (providing child day care and working at home don't always mix), and some businesses jump into it without considering the impact on their operations.

But what once seemed a quirky exception to the office routine has become an established part of the American workplace.

"The good news is that there are problems but there are also solutions," said Ellen Bravo, co-director of 9to5, National Association for Working Women. "We think it's important for the flexibility families need."

By the numbers

From 15-million to 20-million people telecommute, most of them spending one to three days a week at home, according to various studies. The studies generally count telecommuters as company employees who work at least one day a month at home.

That doesn't include the millions more who run their own businesses or serve as consultants and independent contractors from home. About a quarter of households have home offices, up from one in five just two years ago, according to CDB Research & Consulting.

Not that working at home means a vacation. Sure, the dress code is more relaxed, the hours more flexible and the company may save money because it needs less office space.

But it's not an escape from work, experts say, and not everyone is cut out for the isolation from the office and co-workers. In addition, companies aren't always prepared to handle workers who are out of sight.

"Dropping out seems most often due to external constraints -- job demands, change to a less favorable supervisor -- rather than disillusionment with telecommuting," said University of California-Davis professor Patricia L. Mokhtarian, who has been studying telecommuting since the early 1980s.

Telecommuting may not deliver some benefits that might seem associated with it, such as less traffic on U.S. 19 or Dale Mabry Highway. While a U.S. Department of Transportation study estimates telecommuting could reduce commuter traffic by as much as 4.5 percent by 2002, Mokhtarian suggests the impact may be less.

Telecommuting by 1 or 2 percent of the work force would mean only a 1 or 2 percent reduction in number of miles driven, she says. And that might easily be offset by telecommuters taking shopping or social trips if they don't have the drive to work.

Work-at-home arrangements are not for all companies. Bigger companies are more likely to try it than smaller ones: 56 percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees offer telecommuting opportunities, according to a 1999 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, while only 27 percent of companies with fewer than 100 employees offer it.

Telecommuting fits some industries, such as utilities (59 percent) and high-tech companies (55 percent), better than others, such as manufacturing (13 percent) and retailing (17 percent), according to the survey.

And it's unlikely that the complete virtual office, such as Horizon's, will become commonplace.

"There are too many economies of scale and other benefits to having people physically present in one place at one time," Mokhtarian said. "And I'm afraid we are somewhat territorial creatures, with some morale and productivity benefit to having a workplace we can call our own, customized to our comfort.

"Cubicle, sweet cubicle."

A growing company

Michele Grimes remembers working in a bank with its dress code and seemingly endless meetings. Now, it's blue jeans and slippers as she manages account executives for Horizon Marketing from her home near Brandon.

"You get a lot accomplished in a small amount of time," Grimes said, with no socializing around the water cooler or other distractions. "If I find myself being bored or needing socialization, I go for a walk."

Horizon Marketing started in 1997 with a staff of five, "two working for room and board," said Watson, one of the partners.

"I still don't see a reason to go out and get brick and mortar," he said.

The company's fortunes have improved: Watson projects the staff of 32 could reach 50 by the end of the year. According to the privately held company, revenues grew from $700,000 in 1998, its first full year, to $1.7-million last year, and are projected to be $4-million to $5-million this year. Watson said Horizon has been profitable since it started, but he declined to provide specific numbers.

The company ( offers a variety of e-marketing services, from Web design to corporate communications to using new media such as e-mail to promote businesses. Clients include Tampa International Airport, Discount Auto Parts, Lotus and Beall's Department Stores. Some clients don't even know that Horizon has no headquarters.

The 1,000 square feet the company leases in Ybor City includes cubicles, some computers and a conference area so Horizon staffers can meet with each other as well as with clients.

"The scope and size of the projects we're working on is far greater than it was a year ago," Watson said, "and you have to put a team on these things."

Watson says the creative effort does not suffer from the scattered staff (the farthest lives in Dothan, Ala.). Once a quarter everyone gathers for a one-day staff meeting at a hotel such as the Tradewinds on St. Pete Beach. Occasionally, the get-together stretches to a second day devoted to socializing and team-building.

Watson said the company's mass-telecommuting is a selling point in recruiting employees, particularly from ad agencies.

"They want a change," Watson said. "The ability to work at home is a huge plus for us."

The company has an extensive intranet -- Web pages available only to employees authorized to sign onto its network -- that allows staffers to track project development. Part of the money it saves in rent goes to higher phone bills, but Watson says no one is questioned about using the phone too much.

"I thought it would be a challenge managing a virtual office," said Grimes, who has been with Horizon 18 months. But "you always know where someone is. We're all pretty accessible."

Sometimes Grimes works a 40-hour week, sometimes 60. Telecommuting, though, gives her more personal time. "If I have an awards ceremony at school, I just get up and do it," said Grimes, who has two children. Her husband, though, is a commuter, traveling from their home near Brandon to St. Petersburg.

It takes some effort to keep her personal and professional lives separate. When the door to her home office is closed, her family knows the message: Do not disturb. On the other hand, once she leaves the office for the day, she tries to forget work and concentrate on her personal life.

"It is kind of hard to separate the two," she said. "People have to be motivated, disciplined and detail-oriented" to make it work.

Dinnocenzo, the author and consultant, says the hoped-for balance doesn't automatically happen.

"If you're a workaholic before you telecommute," Dinnocenzo said, "you will still be after you telecommute. It might be worse. You don't have tangible separation. It is very tempting for highly motivated people to just work all the time."

Giving up desks

IBM has an average of one desk for every four employees in its worldwide sales force, increasing its mobile staff from about 10,000 five years ago to more than 60,000 today.

The office has become the "mobility center" or "teamplace," where workers have to reserve cubicle time when they come in from the road or home. The company gives the workers laptop computers, cell phones, pagers, an extra phone line at home and software that allows them to have one phone number follow them anywhere.

"We carry our office on our shoulder," said Dot Howard of Anna Maria Island in Manatee County. She is IBM's geographic services executive for Florida.

IBM's mobile workers typically spend a day a week at a company office where they have to reserve cubicle space, three days at a customer site and a day or two in a home office. People know when they are hired if telecommuting is part of the job.

"It was kind of a culture shock at first having come from another company where we had our own space," Howard said.

The flexibility helps with her family life, which includes a stay-at-home husband and two children, ages 6 and 10. "I can be at home when I need to be home," Howard said. "If we're having a conference call, it doesn't matter where I'm sitting. I've had them at my daughter's school."

Howard estimates she works 45 to 50 hours a week, including from 9 to 11 p.m. four days a week, time when the kids are in bed, the house is quiet and she isn't interrupted by phone calls or e-mail. Adjusting to telecommuting took a while, though.

"Most of us have driving time to get work out of your head and think of family life," she said. "That's difficult to do when it's three steps away. It's difficult for me to switch back and forth. I try not to talk about work when I'm not working."

A recipe for failure

OSHA may have opened a can of worms by raising the question of workplace safety in the home office, but experts say there are issues to be considered by business, workers and government.

"For about a decade now, people have looked at this from every direction," said Eddie Caine, a program manager for TManage Inc., an Austin, Texas, firm that advises companies on telecommuting issues. "There probably are as many thorns in this as there are benefits."

Caine says companies shouldn't consider telecommuting an employee benefit but rather a way to improve operations.

Some businesses do it for the wrong reasons but still benefit. In one instance, he said, a company let a staffer telecommute because his socializing with co-workers disrupted others. The move not only made him more productive but also helped the others. It won't work that way for all, he said.

Some people see it as a solution to their day-care problems, another mistake, Caine said. "I don't think you can do two important jobs at the same time and do them well. If you wouldn't take the child into a traditional office, that's probably a reason you should look for alternate arrangements, either in the home or away."

Then come concerns about the work environment, which OSHA still is studying.

"If you walked into some of these home offices, you would cringe," 9to5's Bravo said. There's make-shift furniture that can cause physical ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and lousy lighting that strains eyes.

Additionally, too many people and companies go into telecommuting with unrealistic expectations.

"There are many employers who say they are flexible but don't offer flexibility to everyone or on equal terms," Bravo said. "There are lots of ways to set people up for failure, so you want to make sure that doesn't happen."

The employer and staffer need to understand each other's responsibilities before telecommuting starts, Bravo said. That should include setting realistic goals and agreeing on criteria to assess how it is working.

The Communication Workers of America came up with an eight-point list, including ensuring equal pay for the same work, requiring managers to give notice before dropping by someone's home office, making employers pick up supply and equipment costs and keeping telecommuters apprised of advancement opportunities in the office.

Sticking with it

When telecommuting fails, companies don't like to talk about it.

"Companies that don't succeed with something generally don't want to advertise their lack of success as much as those who do succeed," said telecommuting consultant Gil Gordon of Monmouth Junction, N.J. He says many "failures" could easily be avoided through improved planning by management and realistic expectations by employees.

For example, Gordon said one company would not provide high-speed Internet access at home for workers who depended on the connections to do their jobs. They became frustrated with the slow connections, Gordon said, and eventually it might have put their jobs at risk because their performance suffered.

"The fact is that in the last five to eight years, the how-to road map has become much more clear," Gordon said. "As a result, companies tend to take a longer time to decide if they're going to get into telecommuting. But when they do, they tend to do very well with it."

When telecommuting succeeds, those involved can't say enough about it -- and don't consider returning to their previous work style.

"I will never go back to an office environment," Horizon's Grimes said. "I don't think I could."

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