Telecommuting_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


When Marissa Mayer, the recently-installed CEO of Yahoo! rescinded the company's permissive telecommuting policy and required employees to work on-site, it sent ripples throughout the business world. Some critics of her decision say that it unfairly undermines the work-life balance of hard-working households. Supporters argue that regular face-to-face interaction fosters creativity.


The jury is still out, but one thing is clear: Mayer's decision sparked a conversation about the gains and losses of a telecommuting arrangement. We checked in with three small business owners to get their perspectives on this heated topic.


Clearly define expectations

To begin with, some people mistakenly conflate flextime and telecommuting. "The umbrella term is flexible work arrangements," says Pat Katepoo, founder of WorkOptions. These arrangements cover a variety of situations, including a compressed work-week, part-time schedules, job sharing—and telecommuting. The flexibility lets you "change when you work and how you work," she says. "Telecommuting is a change in where the work is done, [such as] at home, the coffee shop, or a library."


Katepoo says that telecommuting provides tangible benefits to both sides in the relationship. "For employers, the big gains are in productivity, retention, and reduced absenteeism, since [bad weather] or a sniffle won't stop [telecommuters] from doing work that day," she explains. "Employees save time and get more control over their work. Their perception of stress is less and they can actually do more work." Studies and surveys support Katepoo's findings.


And the drawbacks? Managers who are used to having workers in the office at their desks may have a hard time keeping tabs on their telecommuting staff. For the latter, being isolated from their fellow workers or lacking the self-discipline necessary to focus on work by themselves can seriously disrupt the new routine.


For a business that is trying telecommuting for the first time, there are some common issues that need to be addressed in advance to make the transition smoother, including setting a schedule, establishing work goals, and building a communication plan. For example, a telecommuter could work remotely on Tuesdays and Thursdays, accomplish an agreed-upon set of tasks, and report to their supervisor at the end of the day by email. Another communication option is Google Hangouts, which lets up to 10 people have an online video conversation.


Managing remote workers sometimes requires a special set of skills, so Katepoo recommends the tools and resources found at When Work Works and the Society For Human Resource Management. Establishing a telecommuting relationship takes patience and willingness. "I do suggest a minimum trial period of at least three months and up to six months," Katepoo says. "And the trial period should not be seeing if [telecommuting] works out. It should be working out the issues that surface [in order to make it a viable working arrangement]."


Telecommuting_PQ.jpgBe accountable

For companies that allow telecommuting, it's not uncommon for workers to split their time between the office and a remote location. However, some business owners have done away with a central office entirely and have every member of the team work on their own remotely.


Case in point: The Content Factory, a Pittsburgh-based public relations and social media marketing agency. Founded in 2010, it has a staff of about eight made up of contractors and full timers, as well as a fluctuating number of part-time service providers.


"We thought we were going to go the employee route, but when we outlined the job responsibilities and saw that it was very much project-based, we started changing the way we looked at how we were going to run our business," says Kari DePhillips, one of the co-owners. "We haven't really needed an office. You save so much time by working from home."


One of the early lessons DePhillips learned was to be very clear about the deliverables of each project and when they were due. For example, the agency is contractually obligated to produce a specific number of social media updates every day for their clients. Team members are held accountable for making sure the work gets done on time and that the quality of the copy is up to standards. "You can't have lazy people working from home," DePhillips says. "Some people can't handle the freedom. The big red flag is almost always [whether] deadlines are met."


DePhillips says that the majority of her core team is in Pittsburgh, but she has people working for her across the country. You might think that could lead to a breakdown in communication, but just the opposite appears to be true, she says. Her team stays in touch through Skype and e-chats and has regularly scheduled meetings—all managed virtually. "On the whole, I've been very impressed with the quality of the work that our team turns out remotely," DePhillips says.


Collaborate in person

As the owner of The Marks Group, a Pennsylvania-based company that sells software applications, Gene Marks closed down his physical offices eight years ago. Today, he and his 10 employees all work from home. Yet he also approves of Marissa Mayer's controversial decision to end the practice of telecommuting.


"There is something potentially significant to be gained from having your people around in the right work space and talking to each other, exchanging ideas, and discussing clients," Marks says. "All the collaboration technology we use—such as Basecamp and Dropbox—have great value, but sometimes I think we all take things too far."


By way of example, Marks explains that he has three people in his company each working on a Microsoft Dynamic project for three different clients—yet none of them are really talking to each other. "But if they were in an office working together, it's quite possible [they could suggest ideas] which might be more productive and create more revenue and more value."


That said, Marks has no plans to re-open a central office. Both he and his team members are almost always out on the road visiting clients or developing new business opportunities. "Telecommuting is not the answer for everybody," he says. "It worked for my company because [my team] was already used to doing it and being on the road. But I think requiring somebody to come into the office at least once or twice a week is a good thing overall."

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