Home Sweet Home Office

From the Emerald Coast Business Journal

Time to Telecommute?As gas prices and stress soar, more Emerald coast residents consider working from home

By Maria Mallory White | Photo by Scott Holstein

Most folks would agree: The morning commute to work in rush-hour traffic produces a pain specific to the posterior region. Now, with the price of gasoline continuing to climb, workers are feeling it in the pocketbook, too.

And the anguish is spreading.

“People concerned with the effects of gas prices were significantly less attentive on the job, less excited about going to work, less passionate and conscientious and more tense,” according to Florida State University College of Business Professor Wayne Hochwarter, who surveyed more than 800 full-time employees this spring when gas prices hovered at about $3.50 per gallon. “These people also reported more ‘blues’ on the job. Employees were simply unable to detach themselves from the stress caused by escalating gas prices as they walked through the doors at work.”

Looking for some relief? Maybe it’s time to leave the bumper-to-bumper traffic behind and steer your career along the Information Superhighway. If you’re tired of congested roadways, concerned about air quality and fed up with high prices at the pump, telecommuting could be your answer.

The Value of Virtual Venues
Even before fuel costs began to spike, workers and employers around the globe began embracing the telecommuting or “telework” phenomenon. “Telecommuting is second only to ‘casual days’ as the fastest-growing shift in traditional working patterns,” reports the American Telecommuting Association, which defines the practice broadly as “any method for working productively while away from the traditional office.”

In the three decades since the term “telecommute” was first coined, academia, state and federal governmental agencies and countless individuals have sampled and studied the work-at-home option for a broad spectrum of jobs and industries. “One of the most pleasant surprises about telecommuting is that it’s a win-win-win situation for the individual telecommuter, the employer, and society as a whole,” according to the ATA.

Notorious for its red tape and bureaucracy, the U.S. government reportedly has outpaced private employers for years in adopting telecommuting – by as much as a 3-to-1 margin in 2007.

On the state level, fully a decade ago, after conducting two three-year studies, Florida embraced telecommuting as an official option for its employees.

Working from home is a voluntary option for state employees with amenable jobs, says Anna B. Gray, manager of work-force development and benefits in the Florida Department of Management Services’ Division of Resource Management, which oversees the state personnel system. By law, “All agencies have to identify and maintain a list of positions appropriate for telecommuting,” Gray says.

“Initially the focus of the program was in terms of work-and-life-balance issues, and initially it was designed to be a recruitment or retention benefit,” Gray says.

“(Telecommuting) was an alternative work arrangement primarily to meet the needs of employees and to show some flexibility.”

During the most recent legislative session, the state’s program was on the agenda once again, and its mandates were tweaked.

“In today’s world the emphasis, of course, is now on energy savings and gas emissions and energy conservation,” Gray says.

In the earliest days of the state program, the logistics commanded much attention.

“At the very beginning, personal computer technology was still very new,” Gray says, “so there was a lot of emphasis devoted to how to set up a home office, what sort of technology and what type of dial-up technology and additional equipment was needed.”

“Nowadays, it’s so fluid because a good percentage of employees already own personal computers or have wi-fi access,” she says.

Couching a Career
Some of the nation’s most prominent employers have embraced telecommuting – and continue to expand their initiatives. For Elizabeth Beazley Corriveau of Santa Rosa Beach, the office is wherever she boots up her computer.

“I’m a little bit nomadic,” says the Walt Disney Co. scheduling manager, whose home office is 412 miles away from the Magic Kingdom. “I can work in Panera. I can work on my porch … when I look at telecommuting, the technology has advanced so far that your options are truly vast, with broadband connections, wireless cards, cell phones. I think that’s the amazing thing.”

Corriveau loves telecommuting.

“I absolutely do,” she says. “I love the fact that I have a very flexible work schedule. I usually work five hours in the daytime and then a few hours in the evening. I have a lot of reports I do, so that I can do at any time.”

There are challenges, of course.

“You have to be somebody who is extremely well disciplined to work from home, because you don’t have somebody standing over your shoulder,” she says.

“I think, one of the great things about my situation is that is has allowed me to continue to stay with the company even though I don’t specifically live in Orlando,” says Corriveau, who supervises a team of 40 exclusive telecommuters scattered across the country, all of whom apparently wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Life changes, and you may move to a different place, and a lot of the folks who work on my team have had children and have decided to opt out of the full-time work force. My entire team works part time. I actually have zero full-time people,” Corriveau says.

And, she has very little attrition, too.

“The only attrition I have is (when) I promote people … My team is actually one of the largest (at Disney) that is strictly telecommuting,” she says.

Corriveau didn’t start out as a telecommuter. About nine years into her tenure with Disney, she had mainly worked in marketing and public relations in Orlando for Disney Vacation Club and Disney Cruise Lines and a couple years as a recruiter for the Disney College Program.

“We were moving out of state to Washington, D.C., so I left the company,” she says.

Later, Corriveau found out through close business contacts that in its recruitment efforts, Disney was going to start experimenting with interviewing college students by telephone. In September 2005, she rejoined the company and started doing this new work as an Interview Partner.

“That’s when I started telecommuting,” she says. “We actually have all of the candidates’ application on file electronically. I started out doing telephone interviews” and working with scheduling the interviews,” she says.

“We actually just do phone interviews, so we call the candidate and do the interview on the phone with them. For a large percent of our candidates, they don’t interview in person,” Corriveau explains.

Last October, Corriveau was promoted to manager of her Interview Partners team, who she says live as far north as Boston, as far south as Orlando and as far west as Boise, Idaho. After the team conducts phone interviews, they transfer the data directly to Disney’s employment database.

Work Without the Watercooler
Now that she’s a veteran telecommuter, Corriveau has found the transition to telework requires more than a mere change of venue.

“There’s a different type of communication you develop remotely,” she says, noting that her team communicates heavily through e-mail, conference calls and instant messaging.

“There’s a different way of developing relationships because you don’t have that face-to-face interaction, and you’re not able to go down the hall and ask a question,” she says. For instance, facial expressions are “something you forgo and something that you learn to find a way around. Sometimes it is much easier for some people to relate in person than just over the phone or via e-mail.”

The reliance on technology makes effective communication skills all the more important, Corriveau contends.

“You have to be very honest. It’s almost better to over-communicate than under-communicate.”

For all the benefits of telecommuting, there is a downside with computer-based work, Corriveau admits.

“You’ve got to have a really good Internet connection,” she says. “If you don’t, that really puts a crimp in your day.”


 Potential Benefits of Telecommuting

• Icreased performance
• Increased productivity (25 percent or more)
• Increased job satisfaction
• Reduced absenteeism
• Lower employee turnover rates (by up to 25 percent)
• Reduced energy consumption
• Reduced demand on our transportation system
• Helps with compliance for the Americans with Disabilities Act
• Empowers employees to operate at their full potential
• Employees have more control of their work environment
• Encourages flexible working hours, and potential savings in time and money
• Reduces the frequency and distance of commuting to work
• Potential savings in utilities, office rental and parking
• Reduces pollution
• Saves energy resources
• In an emergency when employees may not be able to get to the office, work can continue.

Source: “Telecommuting: A Guide for Managers and Employees Considering Telecommuting,” Florida Department of Management Services