Winter Weather Raises Telecommuting Questions


By Joyce M. Rosenberg, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Dangerous winds blew across the Midwest this week and North Dakota got its first significant snow.

With these early signs of winter, small business owners may want to think about letting workers telecommute rather than contend with snow, sleet and ice. And maybe think about allowing them to telecommute long-term.

Telecommuting employees fall into two categories. Many do it periodically, during an emergency such as bad weather or because they have to care for sick children. But workers at many companies have been telecommuting full-time or amost full-time for years.

Business owners' attitudes toward telecommuting tend to be that they either love it or hate it. Some have embraced it so much that they've been able to move their companies to smaller offices because they don't need desk space for full-time telecommuters. Yet other owners are still uneasy about not having their workers on-site, even when there's a short-term emergency.

The great fear among some business owners is that telecommuting employees may spend more time on distractions like TV or the laundry than they will on their work. They worry that they won't be able to control their staffers if they don't have face-to-face contact each day.

"If I can't see the person doing the job, are they going to do the job?" is the question these owners ask, said Rob Wilson, president of Employco, a Chicago-based resources outsourcing company.

Wilson said that owners should be able to tell pretty quickly, from employees' output and the quality of their work, whether they're at their PCs or watching TV. If it's clear they're slacking, then those performance problems can be dealt with just like they would if it were taking place in an office.

Their fears are understandable. But, Wilson pointed out, if you've hired the right staffers, then you should be able to trust them to get their work done, no matter where they do it.

Some bosses may be worried about being fair to employees who can't telecommute because of the kind of work they do. The fact is, anyone who works primarily with a computer is probably the best candidate for telecommuting. Someone who works in a factory, restaurant, store or who has face-to-face contact with customers, clients or patients isn't so lucky.

Even owners who are OK with employees telecommuting full-time may require workers to put some face time in at the office. Periodic contact with bosses and co-workers can help telecommuters avoid feeling isolated, and help ensure that they keep up with everything that's been going on. If there's a new employee, it's a good idea to bring the telecommuter back to the mother ship so they can get acquainted.

Some companies require telecommuters to come in at least once a week for meetings or appointments with customers or clients. That, of course, means they're not telecommuting full-time. But it gives a company more flexibility.

Some owners may shy away from permitting employees to telecommute because they think it will mean a big investment in technology. But Wilson noted that there are many secure Web-based services to help small businesses who want employees to telecommute. Companies can download software that essentially will create a network between an employee's PC at home and the company's system. To research these services, use a search engine to look for "remote PC access."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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