Telecommuting workers given more control over when and where they work

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Barry Stern, vice president of consulting services at Bridgeville-based Development Dimensions International, spends between 60 and 70 percent of his time virtually supervising a team of consultants -- usually without leaving his Cleveland home.

But Mr. Stern acknowledges he can't always manage his team remotely.

"If there's a performance issue with someone, if there's some sort of nuance, I like to go there to demonstrate to the individual how important the topic at hand is," he said. "Via phone or video, it's really hard to figure out what's going on in the room."

Although he recognizes managing a disparately located team has its challenges, he maintains that telecommuting can be a valuable perk.

"Do you want a bunch of compliant people who drag themselves into the office?" Mr. Stern said. "Or do you want people who say, 'This is cool. I don't have to waste time commuting?' "

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer began a national uproar recently when she announced plans to drag her employees into the office after issuing an edict forbidding them to work from home.

Such a policy may not have ruffled feathers in 2005, when only 34 percent of employers allowed workers to occasionally work from home, but Ms. Mayer is bucking a national trend.

In 2012, that number jumped to 63 percent, according to a 2012 National Study of Employers conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute.

The same study showed that employers gave their workers more control over when they work, not just where.

The proportion of employers who let employees periodically determine their own schedules rose from 68 percent in 2005 to 77 percent in 2012. In 2012, 93 percent let some employees determine when they could take breaks, up from 78 percent in 2005.

And telecommuting doesn't just give employees flexibility in their work arrangements -- It can be a boon for businesses that want to retain employees.

Christie Tillapaugh, a partner at Cohen & Grigsby, said her law firm used telecommuting to keep an employee who was moving to Virginia. "If your goal is revenue and to attract and maintain the best talent, you have to look at whether telecommuting is best for that," Ms. Tillapaugh said.

Cohen & Grigsby used an unconventional telecommuting arrangement for a manager who handles human relations.

The firm converted the manager's office in Pittsburgh to a constant video conferencing zone where anyone can walk in and see her -- at least, if she's at her desk in Virginia. This allows colleagues to drop in and have on-the-fly conversations and meetings, almost as if she never left.

"It's universally viewed as a success," Ms. Tillapaugh said.

But even if most businesses won't go as far as an outright ban on telecommuting, some startups -- even in the flexibility-friendly tech sector -- aren't necessarily eager to let their employees spend large stretches outside the office.

Shoefitr, which was created to address the frustration that can come with inconsistencies in shoe sizes across different brands, emerged through the startup accelerator AlphaLab early in 2010 and has just 11 full-time employees.

"We're a small company, so the projects we're working on are moving at a really fast pace," Nick End, Shoefitr's customer experience officer, said. "We've found that we can move at a faster pace when everyone is together."

If a problem comes up during the day, he said, "We can hash it out in the conference room" instead of spending time coordinating emails and scheduling video conferences.

Shoefitr's three-dimensional imaging technology physically scans shoes to create algorithms that can tell customers what shoes are likely to fit depending on what brands the customer finds most comfortable. When the algorithms are made available to shoppers on websites like Running Warehouse or Toms, Mr. End said return rates often go down by 20 percent.

One of the ways the company discourages telecommuting is by locating in Oakland, close to where many employees live.

"If you keep the commute short ... you have happier employees and they can work more," Mr. End said. "We are only hiring people in Pittsburgh because, as we grow, we don't want to have a team spread out across the country."

One might conclude, then, any company that relies on collaboration should want its employees to be in the office.

But working remotely isn't just about maximizing productivity or enticing workers to stay -- it is sometimes the only option for those whose family circumstances make it difficult to work a typical nine-to-five schedule.

Melanie Rutan is an accountant who works for Bookminders, an outsourced accounting company whose employees mostly work out of the office.

Ms. Rutan, 47, of McCandless, credits the flexibility in her work life with being able to raise her children, 13 and 17. She said she rarely misses one of their sporting events because her schedule is flexible.

If women continue to be primary caregivers for children, bans on telecommuting are only going to limit their career options, Ms. Rutan said.

Bookminders CEO Tom Joseph said including women with families is an explicit dimension of the Pittsburgh company's telecommuting policy. "The nine-to-five job was designed for when men dominated the workforce," he said. "It's not conducive to someone who wants to be committed to their family. A lot of companies have been slow to recognize that."

At Bookminders, flexible work arrangements have only been enhanced by radical changes in technology over the past five or 10 years.

Mr. Joseph said the prevalence of online banking allows his accountants to take on larger firms without having to wade through mountains of paperwork to compile financial reports. Bookminders also has built a digital infrastructure that closely tracks how many "transactions" each accountant processes, which allows the company to get a sense of how much work each employee is doing.

Technological enhancements haven't just changed the way people can work from home; they could significantly change what is meant by "telecommuting."

"We don't have any employees who telecommute on a regular basis," said Ty Morse, CEO of Lawrenceville-based Songwhale.

But his employees routinely communicate from office to office using high-definition cameras.

"It's less about staying at home and working from home, and more about connecting our offices," Mr. Morse said. The company also has offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

Songwhale's technology allows businesses to sell products via text message, mobile websites and apps. They also help businesses interact with consumers across these platforms. For instance, Songwhale can maintain databases that can text message customers about events or special offers.

Songwhale is in the process of expanding its products to Asia, which Mr. Morse said would not have been feasible without recent technological advances.

It isn't just that his developers can simply communicate with people in Thailand and Japan. It is becoming increasingly practical to remotely manage an entire technological infrastructure from almost anywhere in the world.

And that is changing the landscape of telecommuting, according to Mr. Morse.

"It's about our staff in the U.S. being able to support initiatives in other countries, not about our staff working from home."

businessnews - lifestyle

Alex Zimmerman: or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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