When I was a kid, I remember driving with my father during the gas crisis of the early 1970s. We drove past lines of cars that went on for about half a mile or more.
We would stop at a local gas station where he knew the owner. The owner of the station closed his business and sold gas by the tank full only to good customers, by appointment only. God forbid you drove far away from home and needed gas elsewhere and had to wait on line for a couple of hours for the maximum half tank stations would sell while customers shot each other over the precious juice. It was just like The Road Warrior only people were more civil in that movie and the gas they killed each other for cost nothing.
It was a bad time but it forced people and society to change. When gas was outrageously priced at a dollar a gallon, consumers opted to buy smaller cars and dump their gas-guzzlers that were the size of Rhode Island.
There were articles and news stories spotlighting the practice of mixing errands so one could save gas and the government preached trying the four-day work-week.
The proposal was simple and brilliant. Businesses would extend the 9-5 workday by two hours, four days a week and be closed on Fridays. The 40-hour week would still remain but by cutting the need for commuting and the energy used by an office full of people, there would be substantial savings and lessen the dependence on foreign oil. With every office closed on the same day, there would be no loss of business inertia.
Naturally, business turned down the idea, most probably because they couldn’t fathom such a change or going against established Dickensian workhouse ideals.
Basically, they couldn’t give up the power over workers and, as we have seen over the past decade or so, the Dolly Parton song, that goes, “working nine to five…” is so outdated that twenty-something workers wonder if it’s a joke. Well, here’s the punchline to that joke: The “lunch hour” use to be an HOUR! I guess no business has the audacity to rename it, “lunch fifteen minutes” or “why-are-you-chewing-get-back-to-work!”
It’s all about power
Why didn’t businesses want to adapt to a great idea that would cut energy usage by one fifth? Power. It represented a loss of control over employees.
At one large corporation in a part of the country where snow was more ice and road clearing was not a consideration of the local government, employees dreaded the winter months and there was always the question of what would happen when six or more inches of frozen water fell upon the city. The corporate newsletter always answered the question with the flippant line, “people ask what we consider a snow day. We call it a vacation day!”
If you didn’t show up, you were docked one of your vacation days, so we all trudged into the office, usually to find the department manager was “working from home.” I could never figure out how someone manages a staff from home but after years of employees suffering dented cars, concussions on slippery sidewalks on corporate property and the fear of death on the commute to work, the company adapted to the stance of people “working something out with their managers.” The usual arrangement was to work three extra days to receive one day in compensation.
The evolution in policy was, I suspect, driven more from the fear of an employee revolt and Romanoff-style executions of the executives and lawsuits than concern for dead employees. Lock-downs in employee cubicles would happen long before the freedom and flexibility of telecommuting.
What exactly IS telecommuting?
It’s not a hard concept. A worker who has the job description and skills which allow that employee to work independently in an office situation, sets him or her up to work remotely from home. It’s just like lock-down in your cubicle or freelancing from home. You are driven by deadlines. Complete them on time or lose a client…in this case, your job.
For years, people have emailed jpegs to clients for approval, spoken on group calls, and Skyped for instant feedback and visual affirmation. I’ve done quite a bit of teleconferencing and no one ever suspects that I’m naked from the waist down. Aside from that bit of too much information, the ability to work independently as a freelancer translates well to full-time telecommuting.
The hard concept of telecommuting is getting your boss to understand why it will work and how it will benefit the company and employees.
Why telecommuting is good for everyone
Organizations around the world are implementing telecommuting with enthusiasm. According to a 2008 study, 45 million Americans already telecommute at least one day a week. BT, a leading provider of communications solutions, hired its first home worker in 1986; today more than 70% of BT’s employees benefit from a flexible schedule of telecommuting. The company estimates that it has saved at least $500 million, and has improved its productivity by between 15% and 31% – a fact that cannot be ignored.
The best candidates for telecommuting are those that are self-disciplined and can follow through on projects and meet deadlines. Certainly those who have freelanced can handle that. There’s a point to discuss with your boss.
Other considerations help everyone AND the company! By telecommuting:
- You help the environment. Less gas consumed, less harmful emissions, less wear and tear on public roadways and your vehicle.
- The company doesn’t have to spend resources for you. Each employee who is not using electricity, heat, office materials, etc., represents savings to the firm (while you are picking up some of these costs by working remotely from home, they are offset by the costs of commuting, dry cleaning, wardrobe, etc.).
- Working alone promotes greater productivity. Let’s face it…coworkers like to chat, take cigarette breaks, take a bit longer for lunch, etc. Working in an office usually does not include hard and fast deadlines and if YOU are one of the people who deals with deadlines—such as those designers have, but perhaps administrators, marketing and sales people, and other support personnel do not—then working alone may be lonely. But there are no distractions and work is usually finished in three-quarters of the time it would be in an office situation.
- Not having to face the rush and hassle of commuting each and every morning relieves stress, and that can lower absenteeism and health costs for a company. While working in New York City, we would all come into work and, after pouring a hot cup of coffee, share our morning subway horror stories. Who sat in a puddle of urine, had snot sprayed on them, or put up with a less-than-sane person yelling at them about government plots to control their minds and bowels. So, even public transportation represents stress…perhaps more than driving one’s own car in heavy traffic.
- Safety is another benefit as there are less cars on the road and there is no risk to life and property during inclement weather.
Why Telecommuting can be bad:
- If you’ve freelanced for a long period, you know that being alone can make you feel isolated. This is why many freelancers belong to design organizations—to get out and mingle with others. Having an “office family” is sometimes one of the joys of going into work. Isolation, like one of those movies where someone is stranded on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, has a weird effect on people. Before long, you will see no reason to shave or brush your hair, wrap yourself in toilet paper as opposed to wearing clothing, and you’ll start talking to inanimate objects…and they will answer back!
- Friends and family will look at you as “being available” during the day for favors, errands and company. While freelancing, people would ask me to help them move, other freelancers with less work would want to “hang out” for several hours and my spouse had a list of chores I could do “because I was home.”
- If you aren’t disciplined, it will become harder to get dressed in the morning or get up early for the workday. When freelancing, I tend to keep vampire hours. The world, unfortunately, keeps daylight hours. There are also some wonderful shows and movies on cable during the day and who would really mind if you have the TV on while working? Caddyshack is on right now and although I’ve watched it 273 times, the draw to watch it again is hard to fight. Be the ball, Danny.
- If you’re a smoker, like me, you’ll go through a pack of cigarettes in an hour while sitting at your computer. You’ll also put on weight from too frequent trips to the refrigerator for a snack. Soon you’ll just keep boxes of Twinkies by your desk…well, on your desk…on your keyboard with M&Ms all over your Wacom tablet.
- It’s easy to get lost in the workday/personal needs for errands time. If you are able to decide on your own working hours, you should opt to keep your morning for personal activities, and shift the work hours later (afternoon and evening).
Fighting the bad habits:
- Set your hours as if you were commuting into an office. Get dressed, shower, and groom yourself as if you were going to be around people. With telecommuting, you may be called to come into the office right away. Showing up in a robe or with an ill-fitting glitter unicorn T-shirt will undermine the small amount of respect creatives already have.
- Make sure your friends and family understand that you have set work hours as if you were in an office. While you can allow some flexibility, which is one of the perks of telecommuting, don’t let others decide how flexible you can be. If you have caller ID on your phone, screen calls and keep personal calls at a minimum.
- Only smoke outside or away from your desk and set a timer so you have no more then one cigarette every hour. That’s usually more than a company will allow for breaks. Hooray for workplace flexibility!
- Don’t allow food in your workspace.
- A deadline is a deadline is a deadline. Don’t miss one or you’ll be back in the office everyday of the week.
How to approach your boss about creating a telecommuting arrangement
With all of the aforementioned points in mind, ask you boss about a telemarketing situation. Point out the positive factors for the company but leave the smoking out of it. Outline these important negotiating points:
- You are not disappearing from the office. You will be in regularly for important meetings and to discuss upcoming projects.
- Perhaps, set one day a week for you to come in for the day to go through approval processes, deliver final files, discuss changes or meet with a committee or two. Assure the boss that you will come in off-schedule when needed.
- Outline a process for sending jpegs on a daily or twice daily basis so the boss can keep abreast of your progress.
- Talk about energy consumption savings (no computer to power, no lights at your work station), no distractions to you or other employees by staying at home, and the environmental considerations of telecommuting.
- Tout the technology that will allow you to teleconference when needed and assure your boss that you will be available during all working hours.
- Ask for a trial period of a month to try out the situation so you and your boss can evaluate any strong or weak points in the arrangement and make adjustments from there. You may decide that telecommuting isn’t working for you and if your boss isn’t happy with the results, you won’t be fired when the trial period is over. You’ll just be back in the office.
Unfortunately, as many articles on this subject point out, employers have a fear that not having every employee present will lead to some sort of falling domino effect in the office. If you are not present, how can you handle a last minute change or new assignment? While some managers and bosses give employees wide latitude in working on projects, preferring the, “here-it-is-get-it-done-without-involving-me,” which is the perfect boss for telecommuting, there are more people in charge that want to know where you stand every step of the way and be able to see you physically available at every minute of the day.
There are those managers who just won’t give up the power of having you present. They believe that if you can achieve without them looking over your shoulder, you are negating their position in the pecking order of the company and putting their job in jeopardy.
Naturally, there are bosses that just want the power to have you present because they want you to share the commute and workday in the office because they must do so. Have you ever called in sick, only to hear your boss ask how bad the infirmity is and question if you really can’t make it? These are not the bosses to approach about telecommuting.
You have to see and judge your work situation, considering not only your skills and ability to work remotely but also how it will affect coworker’s daily schedule and progress and how your boss will react to the idea.
Statistics on telecommuting are surprising. The vast majority of workers in the United States commute to work, with 70% reporting they commute all the time to work. 9% telecommute part time and travel to their jobs the rest of the time; half of these individuals telecommute just one or two days a week; 2% telecommute full time; the rest work in home-based businesses or are unemployed.
40% of U.S. employees hold jobs that that could be done at home. 61% of federal employees are considered eligible for telecommuting but only 5.2% do so on a regular basis; 42% of U.S. employers say they have allowed staff to work remotely this year—up from just 30% in 2007 (this is not to say that these workers do this on a regular basis).
If you have proved yourself at work and showed you can get things done without supervision, chances are you can bring up the subject and be taken seriously. If you are considered invaluable as a worker who interacts with others on a daily basis and has all the answers at your fingertips, then you will never, ever be allowed to leave and will probably be chained to your desk and given a bucket for bathroom breaks.
In either case, you will never know unless you ask. Maybe start with one day of telecommuting and if the world doesn’t stop spinning, go for two. Two may lead to three or four. In our business, you can probably count on spending at least one day on the office. Still, three or four days not spent commuting would be very nice, wouldn’t it?
A couple of articles you’ll want to read on telecommuting and other considerations: