Two years ago, Candace Ragsdale’s job changed in a way that seemed almost too good to be true.
She suddenly had more money, more time — and less stress.
Yet her job as a customer service representative with Chico’s clothing company was exactly the same. The only thing that changed was where she worked from. She shifted from clocking in at an office about 25 minutes away in Winder to working at home in Dacula.
“It was like a fairy tale,” said Ragsdale about the work setup.
Working on a specially equipped computer and phone, Ragsdale can perform her job duties just as she would at the Chico’s headquarters. In fact, today’s technology allows her supervisors to see a mirror image of her computer screen from a distance.
A growing number of people telecommute as flexible working arrangements gain acceptance. In metro Atlanta, 27 percent of workers telecommute on a regular or occasional basis, according to a 2010 Metro Atlanta Regional Commuter Survey, the most recent year available. That’s up from 20 percent in 2007. All indications suggest virtual working continues to build momentum, particularly in Atlanta, one of the most wired cities in the country. In fact, teleworking is the most popular commute alternative in metro Atlanta. More people telework most days of the week (7 percent) than carpool (5 percent) or take public transportation (also 5 percent).
The increase in telecommuting has been buoyed by advances in technology — from video conferencing to instant messaging to software allowing supervisors to see their employees’ every keystroke from miles away. From an environmental standpoint, every mile off the road reduces air pollution.
Telecommuting also offers benefits for the telecommuter: cost savings (from gas and wear on tear on the car to not having to do dry cleaning or eat out), health benefits (not having to battle bumper-to-chrome traffic) and time savings (with the average one-way commute in Atlanta lasting 30 minutes, teleworking gives employees an extra hour a day.)
Experts also say employers have a lot to gain, from saving costs on brick and mortar buildings to holding on to talented employees.
Experts also agree telecommuting isn’t for everyone. Some employees feel isolated and crave face-to-face contact with colleagues. Working from home can blur the lines between work and home, making it difficult to turn “off.”
Earlier this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer informed staff they needed to show up at the office every day or lose their job. The decision was largely seen not as the beginning of the end of workplace flexibility, but rather as a shifting of strategy at a struggling company out of step with the modern workforce. But telecommuting is not gaining traction only for office jobs. Even electricians and plumbers, who may have had to go to the office to do paperwork, are turning to teleworking for those tasks.
Tedra Cheatham, executive director of The Clean Air Campaign, said her nonprofit has worked with about 250 companies for several years to start or expand telework programs. Working remotely, she said, requires planning and preparation. Employers need to clearly explain work goals and expectations, and have objective measures to evaluate performance. Meanwhile, employees should never develop a sense of entitlement about telecommuting, she said. And, she added, employees should always be prepared to go to the office for face-to-face meetings even if they occur on days normally reserved for working at home.
Cheatham said it’s a good idea to start slow, such as one day every two weeks, and then build toward more regular telecommuting.
Elham Shirazi, a telework expert and consultant based in Los Angeles, said the bulk of telecommuters work remotely 1 to 3 days a week, but about a third of telecommuters do so 5 days a week.
For workers who telecommute, Shirazi said it’s critical to set up a designated, well-organized work space and limit distractions. Shirazi said some of her clients wear work badges at home to send a message to family that they are on the clock and should not be disturbed.
Increasingly, the work space is looking and acting the same – regardless of where it is.
On a recent afternoon in her front room of the house, Casey Kelly video chats with colleagues, reviews shared documents and holds a meeting with several people — all via her laptop computer.
For years Kelly, an account manager with PGi, a technology company based in Atlanta, has worked one to two days from her home in Lawrenceville, sparing herself the one-hour commute each way to Buckhead. But after her 7-year-old son broke his leg, she shifted to working from home every day temporarily. She credited one of her company’s products, iMeet, a virtual meeting product, with making the transition seamless.
“At first, after my son broke his leg, I needed to go to my son’s school a few times a day to help him out because he’s in a wheelchair,” said Kelly. “The school is just around the corner. But imagine if I had to drive from Buckhead every time. It would have been very difficult. I’ve been able to do my job from home, no questions asked.”
Back in Dacula, Ragsdale is happy to no longer drive 25 or so minutes each way on long, winding roads. She admits to wearing her pajamas to work in the morning and showering during her lunch hour. She has more time to work out. She loves eating at home. But the best part of telecommuting is when her shift ends at 3 p.m., she is exactly where she wants to be: home. She goes down a flight of stairs, opens the door, and meets her grandchildren getting off the school bus.
“It has been life-changing,” she says. “And it just makes sense.”
Tips for telecommuting
- Select jobs for teleworking. Teleworking is best suited to jobs that are information-based, predictable, portable, or that demand a high degree of privacy and concentration. The key is to designate jobs with at least part of the work that can be done as well, or even better, away from the office. Identify such jobs up front so employees don’t have to guess which jobs are eligible.
- Manage based on performance and results. Set productivity objectives and measure achievement against them, trusting employees to manage their own time.
- Articulate teleworking policy. This written policy should outline the company’s positions on eligibility, performance measurements, equipment provision, technical support, ownership of physical and intellectual property, and requirements for in-office appearances.
- Train and educate. Managers should be trained in the best ways of managing virtual workers. And employees need to learn to work differently and adjust to a more independent environment.
Source: WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resources association