By Laura Raines
Originally published in ajcjobs
Sunday, August 24, 2008
It’s Monday morning. You’ve got a client conference at 9 a.m. and want to run an idea by the boss. Forget walking down the hall to his office or checking the break room to see if he’s getting coffee. Instead, you log onto the company Web site and check the chat feature.
If the dot by his name is green, you know he’s available and free to talk. If it’s blue, he’s already in a meeting. Red means he doesn’t want to be disturbed. If it’s orange, he’s not online; better send him a text message on his PDA.
Welcome to the virtual workplace! In a global economy, a growing number of employees work in different offices, cities or even countries. They still have supervisors, co-workers and direct reports; they just don’t see them every day. They don’t meet for lunch or chat around the water cooler. Their offices are at home or in satellite locations, and they rely on technology to stay connected.
More employees will telecommute in the future, according to a study developed by Robert Half International’s OfficeTeam. The survey polled 150 top executives of America’s largest companies. Sixty-nine percent of the executives said that it was common for employees to work off-site. Eighty-two percent said that they expected the number of employees who work remotely to increase in the next five years.
Does teleworking work? Yes, say remote employees, but the situation is not without some challenges.
Susan Baxley is the director of community relations for Teradata, a global data-warehousing corporation with headquarters in Mi-
amisburg, Ohio. The company has a sales and service office with 150 workers in Atlanta, but Baxley reports to the vice president of marketing and infrastructure in Ohio. She works from the Atlanta office or home, and she spends a lot of time visiting other company offices to implement community service activities.
The day after Baxley joined the company in 2000, her boss was relocated to North Carolina, which was a sign of things to come.
“We have 5,900 employees in 40 countries, and many employees are working virtually with global teams,” Baxley said.
She sees it as a growing trend.
Baxley has progressed through several management jobs. She has created corporate-wide strategies for giving and community relations and works with key contacts in each office to accomplish the company’s goals.
“One of the challenges for an organization working in a virtual environment is education,” Baxley said. “Everyone has to know her role and how it fits into the big picture in order to do the work. We have a strong Intranet, and everyone receives training on how to use it.”
Her boss keeps an organizational chart with names and photos of employees.
“Everyone who is working remotely can relate to feeling out of the loop. It’s a challenge, but the more you communicate, the more you bridge that gap,” she said.
She encourages virtual workers to join functional teams that will give them more contacts and exposure within the company.
“You have to be proactive in a virtual environment,” she said.
Baxley calls her boss weekly to give updates on her progress and successes, and she travels to Ohio four times a year for face-to-face meetings.
She likes the autonomy of her job and has developed strong co-worker relationships by being accountable.
“When you do your job well and deliver when someone asks you to do something, people recognize your talents and want to work with you because of your reputation. In a strange way, the water cooler comes to you,” she said.
The one drawback Baxley finds to teleworking is its potential effect on work/life balance.
“It’s difficult to turn the laptop off. In a global company, something is happening all the time,” she said.
There isn’t a time, day or night, that Raun Kilgo’s boss can’t reach him if he really needs him.
Kilgo is the director of product management for Aspect Software, a global communications-solutions and products provider for contact centers. He lives in Atlanta and sometimes works in the company’s Duluth office, but more often he’s at home or on the road and is working via computer, cellphone, a chat office communicator and PDA.
Kilgo’s boss works out of the Lombard, Ill., office and reports to the CEO in Chelmsford, Mass., the company headquarters. His fellow product managers live in Miami and Nashville, and his direct reports are in Chicago and Tampa.
Yet, he feels connected.
Kilgo, who once worked in a traditional office for GE, said that, if someone had told him this was the way he would work someday, he probably would have said it would feel like he was on a technology leash.
“Now, I’m all over the teleworking lifestyle, and I love the remote connectivity tools,” Kilgo said.
He and his boss chat (real-time messaging) or talk by cellphone multiple times a day and meet face-to-face quarterly. Face-to-face meetings are better for big-picture brainstorming and any kind of human resources function, such as annual reviews, he said.
Kilgo often gets up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. with his wife, a schoolteacher. It’s the perfect time to call the office in the United Kingdom. Occasionally, he’ll conference-call Singapore at midnight.
For people who haven’t worked remotely, there’s a learning curve in using the communication tools and sharing files.
“Ask any company today, and they’ll tell you that internal communications is one of their biggest challenges. You have to realize that something you say and something you write can have a different impact; there’s no facial expression in an e-mail to show that you’re speaking tongue-in-cheek,” Kilgo said.
Certain things are appropriate in a chat dialogue but not elsewhere, he said.
He tells staff members to ask for what they need in the first paragraph of an e-mail — that may be all he reads on the PDA — and to send him a fuller report later.
In a virtual office, “you can’t pick up extra information at the water cooler, so it’s best to over-communicate and communicate clearly,” he said. “We live in a mobile, fragmented society, and this is the wave of the future for knowledge workers. If you have knowledge and share tools, you can work efficiently from anywhere.”
Teleworking is a cost-effective way for companies to expand beyond their geographic boundaries and to achieve larger employee bases.
Erinn White and Helene Ellison co-founded HealthSTAR Public Relations in New York City five years ago. The company specializes in health care clients.
White was traveling to Atlanta often to visit her fiancé and work with a major client, so she and Ellison decided to open a satellite office here.
“We were always the dynamic duo in terms of getting new business,” White said. Ellison was the CEO and White the general manager.
White left an office of 35 people to rent executive space in the Cobb Galleria and hire three people for the Atlanta office.
“I felt a tremendous amount of pressure when I came down here on my own,” White said. “Fortunately, we still work as a team and share projects; we’re just on the cellphone and BlackBerry all the time.
“It’s working quite well, but it is different. When you’re in a satellite office, you have to be the one to reach out to the home office. The responsibility is on you to stay connected.”
People forget to tell her things about the staff, and hearing laughter in the background of a conference call isn’t the same as being there, she said. She loves seeing everyone when she travels to New York twice a month.
Personally and professionally, it’s been a good move. She and her fiancé will marry in October, and she has added new business to the agency.
“In a small office, my staff has greater access to me and my 18 years of experience, and we get more work done, because there are fewer distractions,” White said.
Christina Todisco is an associate marketing manager for InterCall, a provider of audio, Web and video-conferencing services for corporations. She said that working from home is definitely quieter.
“There’s no one popping her head in your office to interrupt you, but that can get kind of lonely,” she said. “I make it a point to reach out to my team members by phone a couple of times a day, instead of doing everything by e-mail.”
When the Atlanta company where she worked was acquired by Chicago-based InterCall in 2002, the company flew her to meetings with her new team in Colorado, Chicago and Dallas before setting her up in a home office in Atlanta.
“I like working from home. It means that I save on gas, don’t have to commute and have more time to spend with my family. I have a 2-year-old daughter,” Todisco said.
She said teleworking hasn’t changed how she works, but she does fight the urge to check the computer after regular work hours.