Can Working At Home Work For You?

More and more people are ditching the office and using computers to do their jobs from home. A look at the fast-growing telecommuting trend–and whether it’s right for you.

Sounds good, all right: no commute, and a dress code that includes pajamas. But before you rush to join the 15 million office workers who do all or part of their jobs at home, ask yourself: Are you able to turn your back on a pleading child? Willing to ignore piles of laundry and mounds of dishes for eight hours at a time? Ready to troubleshoot your own computer problems?

You can do it!

You can do it!

You might want to find out, because the opportunity to telecommute could come your way. Increasingly, major corporations like AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Hewlett-Packard Company, and Merrill Lynch are offering this option to attract and keep employees, or to save money on real estate. Some are even providing salary bonuses as an incentive.

For seven years, Carla Trexler was a full-time insurance rep. Then, when she was pregnant with the second of her three children, she started working from home, doing part-time data entry for Office Remedies, a company based in Herndon, VA. “Telecommuting works great for me,” she ,says. “It’s wonderful to have the flexibility to be with my kids.”

Trexler, who lives in Chantilly, VA, set up shop in a small upstairs sitting room, and has adapted her schedule to her children’s. She stops and starts her assignments as her two older kids come and go from school, and she sometimes lets her 4-year-old son, Ryan, “work” beside her on the Family’s PC when he returns from morning preschool. Not the ideal environment for everyone, but a viable one for Trexler, who is paid on a per-project basis; as long as she meets deadlines and quality standards, her employer doesn’t care which hours, (Dr how many, she puts in.

Telecommuters do everything from management work to clerical chores, and according to the experts, those who do it best are self-starters. Even though you’re an employee, “you need many of the same traits as entrepreneurs,” says Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, who advises employers on telecommuting. “Self-discipline, self-motivation, and the ability to work alone” are also necessary, he says.

Still, there are as many different styles of telecommuting as there are telecommuters. Lisa Taylor, a full-time human-resource administrator for Unisys, a computer and information technology company, has a highly structured arrangement. Her company requires that telecommuters send their kids to day care, so Taylor drops off her 2-year-old daughter, Ellison, at a nearby center each morning. Once Taylor returns, she goes upstairs to her office. “I don’t usually go downstairs until it’s time for lunch,” she says.

Taylor says her home is actually a “better work environment” than the corporate cube she left two years age. “You don’t have the interruptions,” she explains. “You still get the phone calls, but you don’t have people stopping by, or the distractions of people talking around you.”

Taylor, who visits Unisys’s Reston, VA, offices just a few times a year to run orientation programs for new employees, has benefited from her company’s enthusiasm for telecommuting. When Unisys converted Taylor’s entire department to that way of working starting in January 1997, each employee got computer equipment on loan, including a fax-printer-copying machine. Unisys also provided each individual with a stipend of about $5(X), which Taylor used to buy a desk and chair. (Note to prospective telecommuters: Not all employers are so generous. Setting up a home office and keeping it stocked with supplies can be expensive.)

This mobile workplace has paid off for many of the 120 people in Taylor’s department who now live in such Far-flung places as Montana, New Hampshire, and Georgia–even Brazil. Anne Gorenstein, a manager in the group who resides in Vienna, VA, says that she saves money on everything from lunch–“for the first time in my life, I am using up leftovers and not having in throw away all those packages of green food that pile up in the refrigerator”–to gas. While Taylor still pays $179 a month in child care–as she would if she worked in the office–she saves more than $700 a year on highway tolls alone, in addition to savings on gas and reduced wear on her car. (As for fixed costs, Taylor admits that after spending the day at home, she’s often itching to go out for dinner.)

Ironically, telecommuters sometimes wind up putting in longer hours than their counterparts. “When you work in an office, there’s a rhythm of people taking breaks, going out to lunch,” explains Arlene Johnson, a consultant for a Boston-based firm that helps corporations design flexible workplaces, and a telecommuter herself. When Johnson first started working from her home in Livingston, NJ, “I’d walk into my office before breakfast and stay there without any breaks until eight or nine o’clock at night.” The discipline that telecommuting requires, she adds, “is knowing when to quit, not when to start.”

Linda Leathers, assistant to the vice president of Georgia Power, says that on the three days a week she works at home, she ends up devoting “about two hours more per day than the company pays for.” But Leathers, who lives in Duluth, GA, says it beats spending three hours in rush-hour traffic en mute to her Atlanta office. Plus, telecommuting allows her little luxuries like going for a run at lunchtime–something she’d never do on an office day “because you have to shower and redo your makeup.”

Probably the biggest challenge for a telecommuter is taking her own needs seriously–and getting the cooperation of her Family. For starters, says Gil Gordon, an effective telecommuter requires a separate mom that is fully equipped for all job-related functions. Then she needs to set firm rules. “Make sure that your family’s expectations are in line with your ability to meet them,” advises Gordon. “Don’t let them assume that because you’re working at home, there will be a six-course meal on the table at night, the errands will be run, and the lawn will be mowed.”

Writing Off the Virtual Office

Some telecommuters can take advantage of another source of savings: the home-office tax deduction. If you have a separate space in your home that you use exclusively as your office, you may be able to deduct a portion of your home mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance, and other expenses associated with that office. If you decide to telecommute, be sure to consult with a tax expert or the IRS to determine whether you’re eligible for this break. More information on telecommuting in general can be found on consultant Gil Gordon’s Web site, www.gilgordon.com, as well as on the Web site of the International Telework Association & Council, www.telecommute.org.

How to Get the Boss’s Okay

If you want to convince your employer to let you telecommute, Dallas consultant Joanne H. Pratt recommends writing a proposal describing “what you want to do, how often, and how you will carry out your job.” You also need to spell out costs and benefits to the company. Office Remedies, Carla Trexler’s employer, knows that she has done her work when she turns in a project; but you may have to be more persuasive if your line of work has less tangible results or involves managing others.

You’ll also need to establish how your work will be evaluated. At Merrill Lynch, there’s a company-wide policy that applies to all employees. Telecommuters have formal reviews of their work twice a year, and informal reviews-such as face-to-face meetings with their bosses-more often, according to Eileen Keyes, assistant vice president for alternative work arrangements. Find out whether your employer has such evaluations; if not, create a detailed plan with your supervisor.

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