Local businesses give telecommuting a fresh look
Mar 18, 2013 (The Virginian-Pilot - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Julie Rowland's townhouse sits back from a crescent-shaped street in Virginia Beach's Timberlake neighborhood. Few cars travel down it during the day. Inside, the phone almost never rings.
For Rowland, senior account manager with NetTek LLC, a Norfolk technology company, it's the perfect place to work some days.
"It's quiet," she said last week during a break from home-work. "I can concentrate. I feel like I can get a lot done when I'm working from home."
Rowland, who is among a growing number of telecommuters, worries that Yahoo's recent decision to no longer allow telecommuting could stifle the practice. A Yahoo memo stressed the need to "be working side-by-side" to encourage "communication and collaboration."
Yet she also understands where Yahoo is coming from.
"The key," Rowland, 54, said, "is to do it periodically. It's good to have a mixture -- not all one way or the other."
She works two days a week from home.
"There are times you need to see certain people and talk about different projects," Rowland said. "You can talk on the phone, but it's not the same. You can't see people's body language."
Her balanced approach to telecommuting is seconded by researchers and some local employers.
Ravi Gajendran, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined 46 studies on working at home.
"Telecommuting is mainly a good thing," he concluded in a paper he co-wrote.
It tends to increase job satisfaction and performance and reduce stress and the inclination to switch jobs, Gajendran wrote. But for those who worked mostly at home, it "harmed relationships with co-workers."
In 2011, 21 percent of Americans "worked at home on an average day," the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
The trend has grown in Hampton Roads and elsewhere over the past decade. The percentage of residents working mostly from home rose to 3.0 percent in 2010 from 2.5 percent in 2005, according to U.S. census data. Yet that was lower than the 4.3 percent U.S. average.
The most common explanation: Avoiding traffic is a big incentive for working at home, and if you think it's bad here, it's a lot worse elsewhere.
"If this place was clogged to the hilt like Northern Virginia, we'd all be teleworking a lot more," said Rowland's boss, John Almeter, the president of NetTek.
Rowland, who once lived in Los Angeles, agreed: "This traffic is nothing to me."
Telecommuting policies and practices vary significantly in Hampton Roads. At The Travel Outlet, a Beach-based travel agency, half of the eight employees are in the office most days and the others are working from home, Vice President Naomi Estaris said.
At NetTek, which has 15 workers, "most every day we have somebody working remotely," Almeter said.
Although Gajendran said research hasn't proved gains in productivity when working from home, Almeter has found that to be true.
"They just sit and work at the computer all day; nobody's interrupting them," he said. "When somebody's out, they'll complete 15 tickets (for clients served), versus 12 or nine" in the office.
But "it needs to be kept as a part-time thing," Almeter said. "There's no question that getting together face to face, going out to dinner, all the things you do as employees -- you have to keep some ties to that."
Ned Lilly, CEO of xTuple, a software development firm in Norfolk, has a similar philosophy.
"Almost everybody is doing some work at home," Lilly said, but "whenever possible we like for people to be here. We do think there's a benefit to being in the same place, leaning over the next cubicle and saying, 'Let me show you this,' or standing around the break area and talking about something."
Others strongly discourage working from home.
"We don't have an official policy against telecommuting," said Melissa Baumann, director of interactive strategies at Norfolk-based Ciniva Web Agency, "but it would be nearly impossible to keep up with the volume of conversation and detail required to make a campaign successful if you weren't actually here."
At the GEICO insurance company, which employs 2,350 in Virginia Beach, "our thinking is along the lines of the Yahoo CEO -- you just worry about productivity," said Joe Thomas, the regional vice president. Besides, "the jobs we have here require a lot of support from your supervisor."
Some researchers see other pitfalls. Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found that teleworkers put in an average of four and a half to nearly seven more hours per week.
"From a worker's perspective, it just increases the sense that you're never off duty," Glass said, "and allows a very permeable boundary between home and work."
Stephen Ruth, a professor of public policy and technology management at George Mason University, has voiced doubts -- based on security issues and concerns about less competent workers -- on how far the trend can expand.
"You can't go on with this forever," he said.
Shortly after Yahoo's shift in policy leaked out, Best Buy announced it was limiting the latitude of corporate employees to work from home.
"It's about whether that decision can be made by them alone or in consultation with their managers," spokesman Jeff Shelman said in an email. "It used to be a right; now it's a discussion."
Does this signal a step back from telecommuting Almeter doesn't think so.
"If it's truly a failure for business, it won't continue," he said. "But I think there are probably more people having success than failure."
Editor's note: Most of the interviews for this article were conducted in The Virginian-Pilot's newsroom in Norfolk. The article, however, was written in the reporter's home.
Philip Walzer, 757-222-3864,email@example.com
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