Slippers or Heels?

Telecommuting stirs strong opinions on both sides

Anna Swiontoniowski considers telecommuting the bane of her existence and is thrilled that she had to do it for only seven weeks. It was early May 2013 when her office in Des Plaines, Illinois, experienced mass flooding during weeks of torrential rains in the Chicago area and she was forced to work from her 700-square-foot high-rise apartment. At first, she loved the concept.

“I would wake up, make coffee, brush my teeth, walk the dog, and sit in front of my computer with the TV on for background noise. It was great,” she says.

It wasn’t long, though, before she found herself spending entire days in her pajamas, becoming annoyed with her dog for wanting to go out every five minutes (“I swear he was harassing me with his squeak toy,” she says), and getting distracted by doing laundry and watching LIVE with Kelly & Michael (she confessed to being an addict by week three).

Not only was she unproductive, but she noticed a palpable shift in her social demeanor when around other humans.

“When I’d go to meetings, I would feel psychologically rusty, like my face-to-face social skills had atrophied,” she says, adding that feelings of isolation started to set in early on. 
“I would meet up with friends on a weekend and have a hard time talking to them because I was out of practice being face-to-face.”

Four weeks into her involuntary work-from-home arrangement (her office in the suburbs was undergoing a mandatory flood-related renovation), Swiontoniowski called her boss and started begging to come back.

Dr. Christine Tsien Silvers would have a hard time understanding Swiontoniowski’s point of view. She’s been telecommuting for several years from her home in Reston, Virginia, and loves it. She has three children and works part-time around their schedules to accommodate her workload and their needs. A self-proclaimed workaholic, she wakes up at 5:00 a.m., works until her kids rise a few hours later, peppers in meetings at convenient times throughout the day, and then goes back to work when her kids fall asleep. As a mom, she can’t imagine it any other way.

Debate in the Media
The vast difference between Swiontoniowski’s and Silvers’s opinions and experiences sheds a light on the fierce debate over telecommuting. While some people find telecommuting liberating and in line with flexible arrangements (especially when it comes to children), others see trouble in the lack of structure, personally and professionally.

This conversation made international headlines in early 2013 when a confidential internal memo from the Yahoo! human resources department detailed a new policy: as of June 1, 2013, all Yahoo! employees would be required to work from a company office. The backlash to this directive was intense on both sides.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, at that time a pregnant 30-something, received strong ribbing from the press and other business leaders. Sir Richard Branson tweeted that he was “perplexed” by the policy change. “Give people the freedom of where to work and they will excel,” he wrote. Mayer was called unsavory things in the media, and the backlash from working moms was intense.

“My first thought was, ‘You have to be kidding me,’” says Sara Sutton Fell, a working mom and CEO of FlexJobs, a subscription job-hunting service for telecommuting positions. “I was really, really surprised that a leading technology company was essentially going back to the old days, especially after giving employees iPhone 5s.”

She is referring to news that in 2012, Mayer and her team gave each employee an all-expense-paid smartphone (iPhone or other brand). “What do you think they need that phone for—to reach them in the office?” Sutton Fell rhetorically asks. “No, it’s so you can reach them out of the office, which is working remotely or telecommuting. They [Mayer and Yahoo!] don’t want to give any credit to that fact, which is very maddening to me.”

Not all business owners agree with Sutton Fell’s sentiments. Debbie Madden is CEO of Cyrus Innovation, a software consulting firm based in New York City. Only a few weeks after the confidential Yahoo! memo was leaked, she penned a Huffington Post piece under the title “Why I Agree with Marissa Mayer.” In the article, Madden argued that the debate was “not about individual productivity; it’s about company productivity. And collaboration is key to fostering innovation.”

Is Collaboration an Issue?
Talking over the phone several months after the release of her Huffington Post piece, Madden stands by her opinion, especially on the topic of collaboration. Her firm, she says, thrives most when employees are in the office, because people can talk with one another in person and collaborate more effectively than if chatting over the phone. Exceptions are made when a staffer needs to be home to let in the cable guy or pick up children early from school, but on the whole, her employees are required to work from the office.
Sutton Fell argues that telecommuting is an excellent option for any role, even if collaboration is involved. “I challenge business owners to talk with their teams about what percentage of their job is truly collaborative,” she says. “I guarantee that there are a number of tasks that are done independently.”

Even for the tasks done in tandem with others, Sutton Fell says telecommuting can work. It just takes a little extra effort to set up video conference calls and shared online documents.

Dr. Silvers agrees with Sutton Fell. Much of the work she does from her home in Virginia is collaborative, she says, but she still manages to work well with her team via teleconferencing and sharing files over e-mail. What about the argument that in-person meetings foster deeper connections with colleagues? To this, Dr. Silvers is quick with a story.

“I can see where having a person in front of you can help you connect with body language, but I feel like I’m very connected with the key people I work with,” she says. “In fact, I met one of the colleagues I’ve been working with for four years a few months ago, and it was amazing. She was passing through Virginia with her daughter for a college visit, and they stayed with my family and me. Even though we’d never met in person, we were close friends from just talking on the phone and e-mailing over all of these years.”

Telecommuting by the Numbers
Statistics largely prove that telecommuting is gaining popularity among the American workforce. In 1999, 9.5 million Americans worked from home at least one day a week compared with 13.4 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation and the American Community Survey.

The American Community Survey found that 5.8 million people worked from home for most of the week in 2010, up 1.6 million since 2000.

CareerBuilder.com, a site for job seekers, conducts a quarterly employee survey; the company polled 3,690 employees for its second quarter 2013 installment and found that 15 percent of workers are not satisfied with their work–life balance because their employer will not allow them to telecommute. In addition, 15 percent of employers reported offering at least once-per-week telecommuting as a benefit to job candidates who wanted a higher salary than the company could provide.

Words to Live by: Employees and Employers

Swiontoniowski is living proof that working from home isn’t for everyone. If an employee is in an involuntary telecommuting situation, she recommends pretending like every day is a day at the office with a definitive structure. This means waking up and showering at the same time, eating at regular times, taking normal breaks, and not turning on the TV.

“Daytime television is soul sucking,” she says. “If you need background noise to replace office chatter, play music or listen to NPR.”

Cora Rodenbusch is a huge fan of telecommuting. On August 1, 2011, her company allowed her to follow her dream of traveling around the world and working while on the road. For the next 10 months, she and her husband traveled from office to office of her multinational company. Some days she was working from Ireland; other days she was in India or Australia. She says she loved every minute of the experience and gleaned a few lessons.

“You need to be in the right mind-set,” she says. “A lot of people think working remotely will be easier, but it can be harder if you are not highly motivated. You need to be full of energy, optimism, and hope and be aggressive with moving things forward.”
Rodenbusch created a monthly newsletter to keep the lines of communication open with her boss, and she recommends that others follow suit.

“It was kind of like a customer newsletter,” she says. “I put together all of my wins for the month, what I was working on next, and a glimpse of my goals. It was nicely packaged and understandable and let him know how I was doing.”

Communication is key to a successful telecommuting work arrangement, according to Sutton Fell. She says employees and employers need to be proactive communicators from day one.
And for employees who are also working parents: “Don’t assume that working from home means you don’t need child care,” she notes. “It takes just one baby crying in the background for you to lose all credibility.”

For employers who are looking to transition staffers into work-from-home 
arrangements, Sutton Fell recommends establishing clear productivity and deliverable metrics and scheduling weekly (or more frequent) check-ins.

“Try using online collaboration tools and simply speaking up,” she advises. “Both you and your employee need to be completely dedicated to open communication. That is the only way telecommuting will work.” DW

Katie Morell is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. Read more of her work at katiemorell.com.

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