Dont Forget Your Telecommuters

May 1, 2000
Not to be outdone by the millennium light shows around the world, on January4, 2000, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set off itsown display of fireworks. Blazing brightly on the OSHA Web site was the U.S.Department of Labor’s position stating that companies who allow theiremployees to work from home are responsible for meeting OSHA guidelines forhealth and safety. This meant that the 19.6 million employees who telecommutefull time -- and the millions more who do so part time or occasionally -- wouldhave to prove that they had proper lighting, ventilation, safety procedures, andergonomically correct furniture in their home offices.

Then came the real firestorm. You could hear the outcry from business leaderswho worried about liability and unnecessary intrusion by government and fromwork-at-home advocates who were concerned that the guidelines would interferewith hard-won work/life balance options in the workplace. It hit a nervethroughout employed America. Tonight Show host Jay Leno even made wisecracksabout telecommuters having to paint little Fido bright yellow so as not to tripover him during the workday at home, and having red exit signs over back doors.

On January 5 -- possibly setting a record for speedy reaction time by thegovernment -- U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman withdrew the directive,saying, "Given the changing nature of work in the 21st century, we need todetermine what are the new rules of the road." She convened an interagencyworking group to study the situation.

The tempest underscored just how far we’ve come with flexible workarrangements, and telecommuting specifically. No one has to explain the benefitsof telecommuting anymore. It’s pretty well accepted that telecommutingincreases morale and productivity, improves retention and recruitmentopportunities, and reduces absenteeism. The OSHA snafu proved that everyone --companies, managers, and workers alike -- views telecommuting as an importantoption in today’s workplace.

Though OSHA’s guidelines weren’t taken seriously, the incident didunderscore the importance of establishing employers’ responsibilities totelecommuters. Workplace safety may be an extraneous issue, but there are manyother home-office concerns that human resources must address, particularly inregard to communication. HR and managers need to give employees guidance as theyventure into this work arrangement.

Know when telework makes sense

Philadelphia-based CIGNA Corp. has had a formal telecommuting policy foralmost nine years. Not surprised about the concerns raised by OSHA’s policies,Susan B. Thomas, director of employment policies and programs for the company,points out that for flexible work arrangements to be successful, HR has to thinkthrough the specifics of the telecommuting position. It must be explicit in itsexpectations and requirements of the employee and manager.

"We believe that telecommuting is an important part of work/life,"says Thomas. The company has definite, structured agreements that detaileverything required: space, equipment, scheduling, communications availability,conditions of employment -- and what happens to the employee if the situationdoesn’t work out. The organization provides a manager’s guide as well. HRhelps managers select jobs that would be appropriate and offers advice about thetypes of employees who would be most successful.

For instance, Sally Taylor, assistant director in the corporate real estatedepartment, had been working at CIGNA’s Philadelphia office since 1997. Whenher husband took a new job in Ithaca, New York, she approached her supervisor.He wanted to keep her in her position, but at the time there was no one in thedivision working full-time from home.

One of CIGNA’s first rules is to see if the job lends itself totelecommuting. Taylor handles the disposition of surplus space throughout thecountry, working to organize offices that close, space that comes available, andso on. She works frequently with real estate brokers via e-mail, phone, and fax,which fits perfectly with the telecommuting arrangement. And CIGNA takeshome-office arrangements seriously. They post guidelines on their intranet (see"Addressing the Risks" on page 58) and even have inspectors randomlycheck employees in their home offices for safety hazards and security problems.

Knowing that keeping telecommuters connected to the office is one of thegreatest challenges, Taylor’s supervisor continually makes efforts to keepTaylor in the loop. He holds regular meetings, which she attends throughconference-call capability. As a regular part of the team, she is alwaysincluded in e-mails, faxes, and phone contact.

According to the guidelines, Taylor has a separate room for her office andthree phone lines -- one for the computer, one for the fax/copier, and one asthe dedicated phone line. Taylor was the first telecommuter in her department,and as a direct result of her success, other full-time employees outside thePhiladelphia area have become telecommuters as well.

"I have much greater control and flexibility with my work," sheexplains. "I’m a lot more motivated and productive because I don’t havedistractions." CIGNA has shown how defining work hours, tasks, andmeasurable expectations can make telecommuting work wonders.

They’re not in front of you, but they’re still employees

One of the most obvious problems of telework is the hardest to fix. Isolationand disconnectedness from the workplace continually plague telecommuters andtheir managers. While employers may provide equipment and technology totelecommuters, that doesn’t mean there will be a good cultural fit.

Colleen Pizarev, director of Asian services at New York City-based PRNewswire, has been a telecommuter from her Silicon Valley office for two years.For her, it was strictly a business decision. As manager of internationaloperations, Pizarev maintained contact with people in Latin America and Asia,requiring her to be available at odd hours, as late as midnight for offices inAsia. She found herself with large blocks of downtime in the middle of the day-- quite a contrast to a regular workday.

Because of her schedule, Pizarev decided to give telework a try, but she hashad to take a very active stance to remain connected. When she moved out of PRNewswire’s Silicon Valley office, the mailroom at the company’s New Yorkheadquarters got confused about where to send her mail; it ended up in Seattleand then San Diego. "The thought of someone on their own was so foreign tothem. They were so used to sticking my mail in an interoffice envelope,"she says.

But Pizarev was determined to make it work. "The burden of stayingconnected is on the telecommuter," she says. "Otherwise, people forgetabout you within the company, and they won’t make efforts to include you onconference calls and other meetings. At times, when I know a meeting is takingplace and I look at the clock and haven’t heard from them yet, I know they’veforgotten. I’ll call someone in the office and ask them to transfer mein."

To counteract the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon, Pizarev practiceswhat she calls "virtual wandering." It’s the equivalent of stoppingin someone’s office to say, "Hi, how are you doing? I heard you were sicklast week." She contacts one person in the office every day and also triesto speak with everyone on her team at least twice a week. "This way,"she explains, "you aren’t forgotten when good projects come up."

Encouraging teleworkers to maintain contact with their coworkers is crucialto the success of working from a distance. On the other hand, managers and HRneed to uphold that communication. "For telecommuting to work," saysPizarev, "there has to be very visible support for the telecommuter by thecorporate structure."

For example, there was the time when health insurance information went out toeveryone in the bureaus, but the HR department forgot to send it to thetelecommuters. "I ended up missing open enrollment period at one pointbecause they forgot to tell me they had changed their open enrollmenttime." There were also 401(k) changes that didn’t make it to her. Bycommunicating with telecommuters more frequently and in a variety of ways, they’llstay well informed -- and they won’t feel like an afterthought. Once managersmake a habit of regular communication with teleworkers, their peers will catchon.

All employees should know about your telework policies

Another problem with her transition to telework, says Pizarev, is that somestaff members resented telecommuters. Therefore, it’s just as important tocommunicate telecommuter policies to internal employees as it is to communicatethose policies to telecommuters themselves.

"[The resentment] can be a very small incident and short-lived or it canblossom into something that is truly counterproductive," says Pizarev."It depends on how the company treats the situation. PR Newswire gave me alot of public support. They sent out e-mails explaining the reasons for settingup the home office. It was an official company communication."

Companies all over the country are discovering that telecommuting is anexcellent way to retain top-level talent. But it is not a panacea. HR must payattention to the possible fires and flare-ups that can occur. If you set clearexpectations and keep the communication going, telework can benefit everyone.

Workforce, May 2000, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 56-63-- Subscribenow!