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Virtual Offices
When telecommuting works, it's win/win

By Beth Cooney
Staff Writer

Heather Drake's commute is simple. She leaves her bedroom, takes a left and she's at work. "This morning I stopped in the kitchen to get a drink and I was here."

Drake, a Bridgeport resident, has worked at the Stamford-based William E Malloy Insurance Agency since she was 15, when she took a summer job filing and never left.

Now 33, she still works full-time as a bookkeeper for the agency's owner, Bill Malloy, but not in the Glenbrook Road office. She has rarely visited that building in two years. At Malloy's suggestion, Drake started telecommuting following the birth of her second child, daughter Tatum. "That commute wasn't fun," says Drake, whose refrain is familiar to down-county commuters. "When I drove in that traffic, I didn't really have a life."

To get to work, she would leave her house at 7 a.m. with the goal of getting her oldest daughter, Kendall, to preschool in Stamford just before 9. "A lot of mornings, she was late for preschool and I was late for work," she says. "And that's when we gave ourselves two hours to drive 30 miles." These days, she says, "I'm never late because I just go down the hall and turn on the computer." And, "I'm a lot happier."

Telecommuting is a growing trend in traffic-congested Fairfield County and beyond. According to Telecommute Connecticut, a commuter service of the state Department of Transportation, 117,000 workers in the state telecommute.

Reasons for the popularity of the practice include:
  • Keeping employees off Fairfield County roads, where at peak commuting times, trips of a few miles can sometimes take an hour or more.
  • Saving on gas, an estimated $50 a month or more, by telecommuting just two days a week.
  • Helping employers maximize office space.
  • Helping employers retain and attract workers who might be deterred by long commutes.
  • Curbing absenteeism by cutting down on the reasons for missing work, from school snow days to greeting emergency repairmen.

Some workers in on the trend, such as Drake, telecommute full time. Others, like Ken Barcus, a communications consultant at Stamford-based Pitney Bowes, telecommute part-time. Barcus works from home in Stratford on Fridays only, an accommodation allowed by her employer that protects her from the worst of the week's traffic. “The days I work from home, I can be army desk with a cup of coffee by 7:30,” says Barcus. “That wouldn't be true if 1 was driving in.”

In 2005, 44 percent of U.S. companies offered some form of telecommuting, which usually involves working from home at least one day per week, according to Telecommute Connecticut. The 24 million Americans working from home is a figure likely to grow some 60 percent by the year 2010, the agency estimates.

And while many employers resist the notion that their employees can be effective working from home, others have found the opposite is true.

"It is not a license to goof off," says Ed Houghton, director of workforce effectiveness and transition services at Stamford-based Pitney Bowes, one of largest area corporations to actively support the telecommuting trend. Houghton, a former telecommuter, now works in the company's Shelton office, just a few minutes from home in the Housatonic Valley. Before that, he says, telecommuting became a “sanity check” when his job was based at Pitney Bowes' Stamford headquarters. “The kind of commute I had to make to Stamford, if done on a daily basis, just saps the life out of people," says Houghton. He describes the typical day of a down-county commuter: "Say you have an 8 a.m. meeting. If you want to be on time, you have got to leave by 6 a.m. When you get to the office, you spend the first 20 minutes talking about how awful the ride is. If you work a normal day and head out of the office a little after 5, it can take as long as two hours to get home. You never see your family. It's no way to live. And there's a brain drain that goes on with that way of life. It's just not good for you, it's not good for your employer.”

Indeed, telecommuting kept him from retiring after more than 30 years with the company. “There's a productivity myth about telecommuting that in my opinion is completely unfounded,“ says Houghton. “People who do this want it to work. I think for that reason alone, they are motivated to be more productive."

Jim Lush, project manager for Telecommute Connecticut, says despite the enthusiasm of some employers, he still has a hard sell when he approaches many others. The goal of his agency, he says, is simple: "We are looking for ways to get employees off our roads, which are in desperate need of some relief." Because of technology advances - from the Internet to cell phones - virtual offices can be created just about anywhere.

While Lush, who lives and works from his home in New Haven County, is talking about the benefits of telecommuting he is briefly interrupted by a knock on the door. "Sorry," he apologizes, "there's a guy here to fix the well. I've got to let him in." This interruption reminds Lush of an important point: "If I was in the office, say in Hartford, I would have had to take the day off to let the guy in." Still, employers must be convinced such flexibility benefits their bottom line.

"The question I probably get most often is, ‘How do I know my people are working?' " says Lush. "I've found the resistance to telecommuting tends to be generational. A lot of people still have that notion that to go to work, you have to travel to the office. And that if an employee isn't right under their nose, then they can't be working."

Lush and his team of consultants, who have worked with large and small employers throughout the state (including Malloy's), try to address those concerns by helping companies put systems in place to make telecommuting work.

One upstate company required its telecommuting employees with young children to sign contracts stipulating they had day care in place. "The idea being that telecommuting isn't always a substitute for child care,” says Lush. A customer service representative, for example, might have his phone time monitored, says Lush. A home based bookkeeper or an insurance underwriter can use software that allows supervisors to track time spent on work-related projects.

Malloy's agency has computer tools that help him track his telecommuting employees’ hours. "I know Heather's working because sometimes, when I' m on the computer even late night, I can see she's online," says Malloy. Adds Drake with a laugh: "It's easy to figure out if I'm doing my job, because I do the paychecks and people would notice if they didn't get paid." Telecommuting has allowed Malloy to hang on to valuable employees he might have lost because of the stress and strains of commuting and the high costs of child care.

He gives Drake lots of flexibility, allowing her to spend much of her day with her daughters, so she can eliminate the costs of day care for Tatum and afterschool programs for Kendall. "I will take them to the zoo, maybe have lunch with friends once a week, but then I work until midnight or on the weekends," she says. "I put in the hours, just not in a typical way.

"One of Malloy's telecommuting employees, a bilingual customer service representative, works from Florida. "She got married and moved, and she was a very valuable employee to me because, among other things, she's bilingual and I'm not," says Malloy. He set the employee up with a computer, a fax machine and, "If I need her to help with a client who speaks Spanish, I just call her or get her online."

Would Malloy like it if she still worked in the office? "Sure, sometimes, but it hasn't never posed a major problem."

Lush notes that telecommuting is not for every employer or employee. Police officers, firefighters, hospital workers and teachers are a few prime examples of workers who could never be accommodated by its flexibilities. He typically doesn't recommend it for new hires and suggests companies and employees agree to formal ground rules to keep problems from cropping up.

"Some people, quite frankly, want to work in the office," Lush adds. “They like the interaction with people.”

Drake says the biggest downside of telecommuting is that it can be isolating. "Sometimes I miss grown-ups," she says. "I had lunch with friends at the office and I miss that.”

Barcus, whose job involves frequent interaction with other departments, says working from home wouldn't suit her position five days a week. On Friday, when she works from home, she often does a lot of the writing that's required in her job. She's been able to work during bad weather, "when I would have just been stuck on the road." Earlier this year, when a power outage struck Stamford corporate headquarters, she was able to complete important tasks for co-workers shut off from their computers who called her via cell phone. "It has turned out to be the best of both worlds," says Barcus, "And helped in some really unexpected ways."

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