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Remote Control

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 15 or so employees on Jeanne Logozzo’s marketing team at software maker Optika rely on a detailed communications plan to reach their boss in an emergency.

Logozzo, who splits her time between her home office in Boston and corporate headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., drafted the plan to reassure her employees that she was always available. The plan requires employees to page Logozzo if it’s an urgent matter but to use voice mail or e-mail if the issue can wait.

“You need to set up lines of communication that are reliable and then be extremely responsive,” said Logozzo, who spent about 80% of the last six months on the road. “You need to have a code with them, like, ‘If you mark something urgent, I’ll get back to you within so many hours.’ ”

Logozzo, Optika’s vice president of marketing, works remotely as both a manager and an employee. Her situation is hardly unique. The number of telecommuters in the U.S. more than tripled from 3.6 million in 1990 to 11.1 million in 1997, according to New York-based market research firm Cyber Dialogue.

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As this number increases, so do the number of managers who are trying to manage and mentor employees who work remotely. Although telecommuting is maturing as a concept, managers confront the same issues today that they did a decade or so ago when the work style burst onto the national scene as an effective way to retain employees and save money.

Among the most popular concerns are: “How can I trust an employee who I can’t see to get his or her job done?” and “How can I as an employee combat isolation that accompanies working from home?”

Also considered challenges are technical support issues and the tendency of some employees to overdo it, said Nancy Kurland, assistant professor of management and organizations at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “They tend to work longer hours because they feel [telecommuting is] a privilege and they want to make sure it’s not taken away.”

A search by organizations to more effectively lead telecommuters has spawned an industry of consultants who are in great demand--even at organizations that have well-known telecommunications programs, Kurland said.

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These experts say the most pressing concerns facing managers who have responsibility for telecommuters are setting job parameters for remote workers and fostering their career development.

Managers can avoid misunderstandings about a telecommuter’s responsibilities by drafting a generic agreement that is designed to be used by everyone in the company who wants to work outside the office. This agreement should be signed by the employee and the manager before the employee starts to telecommute.

Such an agreement, written by Monmouth Junction, N.J.-based telecommuting consultant Gil Gordon, is available online at https://www.gilgordon.com. It discusses how the employee should report hours worked, what equipment the company will provide for a home office, the reimbursement policy for utility costs, and the employee’s responsibility for income tax issues, among other things.

While many items in the agreement may seem obvious, Gordon says being extremely specific is a proactive way to head off potential problems and make the telecommuter more productive.

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“It certainly takes away a lot of the potential problems because it spells out the expectations in advance,” Gordon said. “The other thing it does is to make it clear to telecommuters what their responsibilities are.”

Managers and employees can also use the parameters in the agreement to determine if an employee’s personality and work habits, as well as job responsibilities, lend themselves to a telecommuting arrangement.

Once an employee and a manager have set up a telecommuting agreement, they should sit down with the telecommuter’s colleagues to address their concerns about having one of their team members working off-site, Kurland said.

Another challenge confronting managers is how to measure a telecommuter’s performance. IBM requires telecommuters to draft a goals statement that they revisit with their manager several times a year, said Bob Egan, IBM’s project director for mobility.

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Regular evaluations are crucial to allay managers’ fears that telecommuters are taking it easy at home, Egan said.

“On a regular basis, you are reviewing those objectives,” he said. “It’s important because if it’s a subjective environment, you’ll have a hard time pinning down if they’re doing what they’re supposed to do since they aren’t in the office.”

Communication is also key. Remote managers often find that employees are shy about calling them at home. Michelle Schwantes, manager of advanced technology information at Nortel in Nashville, holds a weekly conference call with her team to discuss “what we’re working on and whether or not issues need to be green-, yellow- or red-flagged.”

Structured communication also gives employees more freedom to make decisions on their own.

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“Telecommuting empowers me to do the right thing because it allows me the flexibility to make decisions and to move quicker, which is really nice,” said Deborah Lis, a senior client representative at IBM. “We’re all expected to be professionals and to do the right thing for the customer.”

These goal statements might also spell out what kind of training an employee needs to complete new projects. Training for virtual workers is emerging as a key issue as more employees work from home, experts say.

Although career development responsibilities are shifting away from the employer to the employee, managers need to provide resources to telecommuters, said Chip Bell, senior partner at Performance Research Associates and author of “Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning” (Berrett-Koehler, 1996).

Bell recommends that employers devise a “buddy system” that pairs employees with peers who have similar interests, learning needs and goals to ease feelings of loneliness and to promote learning.

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Bell also advises companies to make “learning care packages” for telecommuters that include useful learning tools and funny knickknacks. Such packages remind telecommuters that co-workers haven’t forgotten about them, Bell said.

These techniques help managers feel more comfortable about the progress virtual employees are making, he adds.

“The fact that managers are seeing them grow and learn helps that sense of confidence that just because they’re out of sight doesn’t mean they aren’t working,” Bell said. “It also communicates to the employee that the organization cares.”


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