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Telecommuting: Embracing the Possibilities

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
May 7, 2012 Deadline
June 2012 Issue

Telecommuting: Embracing the Possibilities

My wife, Susan, works for a company located in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I work for a university located about 20 miles from Pittsburgh. For us, the promise of telecommuting has become a reality. We are able to live in the foothills we love, surrounded by trees and wildlife, working from the comfort of our home offices.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, only 3.3 percent of workers are able to telecommute. Some jobs do require a physical location for meeting with clients or working on physical products, but too many employers are overlooking the benefits of allowing workers to telecommute.

When I was in college, my employer loaned me a DEC-VT102 terminal and paid for a high-speed network connection to my apartment. That was in 1988. I worked as a programmer, one of the few professions that could telecommute at the time. My employer was thrilled to have someone willing to work late at night on projects, even if that meant spending money for a special data line.

The slow network I used in college seemed to limit any appeal telecommuting might have. It was accessed via a monochrome “dumb terminal,” which only sends commands to a remote computer. It could be painfully slow to work from home. But, I loved working at odd hours and without any distractions. Back then, we wrote programs on paper before keying them into the system and hoping for the best.

When I left that job, I never imagined being able to telecommute again.

Today, my wife and I both work from the comfort of home. The broadband Internet connections many of us take for granted make working remotely convenient and relatively painless.

I work for a university that offers many of its courses online. If we encourage students from around the globe to take our courses remotely, it seems logical that some instructors would also be located remotely. Online education means both the instructor and the students can be anywhere, occupying a virtual classroom residing on the Web.

In the rare instances when a student calls my Pittsburgh office number, the voice message is emailed to my cell phone as an audio file. My colleagues know my cell phone has a 559 area code, but I doubt most of them give area codes any thought.

For many meetings, the university uses Google+ Hangouts. The campus also has two Cisco TelePresence conference rooms. When you use a properly designed TelePresence room, it creates the illusion that you are meeting at the same table as people hundreds or even thousands of miles away. My first use of the TelePresence was disconcerting, but in time you start to forget the room around you is actually two or more physical locations. I’ve met with professors in other nations, without the hassles of airports and hotels.

Compared to my home office, Susan’s setup demonstrates how far telecommuting has evolved since the 1980s and 90s. Not only is her computer connected to the Internet, so are her phones, printers and other devices.

Susan’s employer has an advanced Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system. Her office phone plugs in to a virtual private network (VPN), allowing it to act like any phone in her employer’s main office. She can transfer calls, conference and use the phone’s network features. As far as anyone can tell, it appears Susan is working in Minnesota.

The VPN my wife uses allows her to securely access the corporate file servers and printers remotely. She can print “at the office” from our house and she can print to a printer sitting on her desk. Coworkers can scan pages on a multifunction device, with the scanned pages emailed directly to Susan’s inbox.

With the advances in technology, why are so few employers embracing telecommuting? If you work in an office, that office can be anywhere. A few things might change, but I’m convinced the benefits of allowing people to work from home outweigh the potential challenges.

My suggestion is that employers at least experiment with telecommuting. Allow employees one or two days each week at home. Expand telecommuting opportunities for those employees who seem equipped to work well alone, without constant supervision. Some employees will end up working from home, while others might need the formality of an office setting.

You do have to be self-motivated and disciplined to work from home. I tell online students the same thing: it is hard to be your own supervisor.

Susan and I work the hours necessary to complete tasks, instead of being locked into strict eight-hour schedules. If I need to work late on an online course website, I can. If she needs to be available early for a conference call, she doesn’t have to worry about traffic or severe weather. Our schedules are whatever they need to be.

If office employees work from home, that means the employer can have less office space. I share office space on campus with six other instructors, all of whom work primarily from home. Imagine the cost savings to the university. Fewer offices, fewer parking spaces and overall lower monthly costs for heating and air conditioning.

Because we work at home, my wife and I use desks and chairs we own. Susan’s company did reimburse us for half the cost of a desk, which was nice. We use our own printers and pay for the toner. The costs are minimal compared to the expense of commuting, especially with rising fuel costs. Many employees would trade the cost of a few office fixtures for the chance to work at home.

It is still important to meet with coworkers and colleagues from time to time. Working with people, it does help to know them face-to-face.

The university requires online graduate students to attend on-campus meetings for a few days each August. We’ve found that students work better as teams online after meeting in person. Four days together on campus seems to foster connections that last the entire academic year.

Susan has had to fly to Minneapolis once this year for a few days of training. The company also flew her and a coworker to San Diego for a conference. Her employer recognizes that relationships still matter in a virtual workplace. But, they have embraced the future.


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