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April 1997

Remote working: marvelous, perilous, or both?

Tammy Sorensen starts her work week with a cup of coffee and a check of e-mail. But Tammy's typical Monday morning doesn't sound like most of ours. Instead of the chatter of colleagues, she hears the twittering of birds in the yard of her Longmont home.

"More and more . . . work is becoming something you do, not a place you go to."
--Woody Leonhard,
The Underground Guide to Telecommuting

Tammy is one of a growing number of UCAR, NCAR, and UOP staff who spend one or more of their work days at home each week. What's unfolding is a quiet but very real and steadily growing shift in our organizational culture. An informal survey conducted by an inhouse committee indicates that as many as 100 staff are now regular telecommuters (or remote workers, the term preferred by people who specialize in the subject).

In any workplace, remote work has some heavy emotional baggage tied to it--managerial fears, employee fantasies, organizational uncertainty. Some conclusions about telecommuting have come to light through practitioners who have paved the way at UCAR and elsewhere over the past few years. Yet misconceptions abound.

Steve Sadler
"There are some sensitivities out there," acknowledges Steve Sadler, UCAR's health and environmental safety officer. Steve chaired a subcommittee of the Human Resources Advisory Committee that was formed last year to take a close look at remote-work issues at UCAR. With the subcommittee's work now done, the HRAC, chaired by Karon Kelly, is drafting guidelines for remote-work arrangements that will soon be available on UCAR's Web site. "We want a unified approach," says Edna Comedy, associate vice president for human resources.

Who gets to work at home?

Thus far, remote-work arrangements at UCAR have been handled informally. Policy 2-4-8 states that "flexible work alternatives are available to all employees subject to approval of their supervisors and division or program directors." Not all jobs are suited to remote working, however. It's up to the employee to make a convincing case that UCAR will benefit from (or not be hindered by) his or her working at home.

"Right now, a remote working arrangement can be as simple as a verbal agreement between an employee, his or her boss, and the division or program director," says Steve. He thinks more-concrete arrangements, such as the guidelines now being developed by the HRAC, will be better in the long run. "There can be a disconnect later on if things aren't written down."

Under current policy, says Steve, "remote work is allowed if the supervisor sees some benefit to the organization. If he or she doesn't, it's totally within his or her purview not to allow [remote work]. It must make good, sound business sense." Along with job duties, there are other factors to consider, including the employee's demonstrated ability to work independently and her or his computer literacy. "It's possible you could have two people working in the same job and a manager lets one work at home and not the other." As Steve sees it, the equity questions raised by telecommuting aren't new: "Remote working is different but not unique. How do we decide which employees are ready to take on new responsibilities? How do we determine salaries? In all these situations, you're using the same judgment processes to come up with sound decisions."

Sometimes the rationale for remote work is clear. Some tasks require long periods of uninterrupted time. Others involve on-call duties at odd hours that are best accommodated with the employee at home. Many other jobs and tasks are less clearly suited for remote work but still performable from a distance.

Remote working differs from an occasional stint of working at home, such as barricading oneself for a day or two to work on a performance appraisal. It's long been routine for many staff to do such ad hoc telecommuting at one time or another. One definition of a remote worker that is gaining acceptance nationwide, says Steve, is someone who regularly spends at least one day per week working somewhere other than a standard office.

It's a process

"The typical remote worker starts out almost euphoric," says Steve. "You get to go home! But what researchers have found is that, over time, remote workers tend to bottom out." With the fridge always close at hand, weight gains are commonplace. A succession of minor but time-consuming tasks, such as laundry, can encroach on one's work time. "Sometimes remote workers start to get the sense that their fellow employees think they're goofing off. Some just can't take the isolation."

Others err in the opposite direction. Without the enforced change of scenery between office and home and the leavening effect of everyday workplace distractions, they find it hard to put their work down when the virtual whistle blows. "They overwork," says Steve. "They never disengage."

Ironically, telecommuters tend to become disenchanted just as their supervisor and coworkers come to accept their remote working. "Typically," Steve says, "the manager starts out uncomfortable and the coworkers even more so, but in time they grow more comfortable--just as the employee is becoming anxious."

The period from six to nine months is considered the make-or-break time, when many telecommuters decide to return to the office for good. Once beyond that time frame, all parties involved tend to become increasingly accepting. However, other factors can sometimes prod people to return to the office. For instance, any risk of downsizing can make home-based workers feel at particular risk because of their already routine absence from the workplace.

Making it work

Just as not every employee wants to work remotely, says Steve, "not all managers like the concept itself." A key principle, he suggests, is for supervisors to focus on what employees produce rather than on their physical presence in the office. "You need to look at the job outcome and agree on the process for evaluating it." It's important, he adds, that no employee or job category be excluded from remote-work options without a sound basis for doing so.

For the newly home-based worker, discipline is key. To keep the work day clearly demarcated, some ritual such as a quick morning or evening walk around the block can be useful (once you're back, your work day has either begun or ended). A clearly defined work space and a consistent work schedule--including breaks--helps keep one on track. Nonslovenly clothes should also help put you in the working frame of mind.

Though working at home has some clear benefits, such as the elimination of long commutes, it can be a misleading solution to problems like stormy relationships with coworkers. "Remote work isn't a panacea for interpersonal work problems," Steve cautions. Also, though it can simplify daycare logistics (for instance, when the daycare site is close to home), telecommuting won't allow you to watch your kids and your work simultaneously. "When people try to couple their work with dependent care," says Steve, "it's a disaster."

Where is the office of the future?

• In a 1995 survey of Fortune 1000 executives, almost two-thirds of the firms had telecommuting programs, half of them instituted in the past two years. A full 92% of those polled agreed that telecommuting brought benefits in lower costs, increased productivity, and improved morale.

• The states of Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington have established telecommuting offices and together have formed the Telework Collaborative to "accelerate the acceptance and adoption of telework in public and private organizations by understanding and addressing the needs of employers, supervisors, and managers."

• Although nobody has attempted such a calculation for UCAR, it's been estimated that some 30% of all jobs nationwide could be carried out, in part or in full, remotely.

It will take some time for remote work to find its ultimate place in our own institutional culture. How does NCAR reinterpret its role as a national and international focal point for research when many staff may be working at home on a given day, rather than interacting with each other and with visitors? Might telecommuting someday lead to a growth in pooled offices, or even to the "hoteling" model used by IBM in Denver, where employees bring laptops to temporary cubicles with temporarily assigned phone lines?

For the time being, Steve foresees a continuation of our informal approach to remote work, which he sums up as "allow it but don't force it." "Some organizations will send everyone home, close a building, and save ten million dollars. That's not the way it works around here. We have a voluntary remote-work policy."

As in many other areas, differences in funding across divisional and program lines come into play with remote work. They affect, for example, whether a telecommuter receives a computer, modem, and phone line; merely a modem; or no hardware at all. However, says Steve, "divisions and programs are obliged to cover the cost of ergonomic equipment for remote workers at home and for all staff on site. We have to make the work situation ergonomically correct for everyone, whether in the office or at home." (If you'd like to arrange an ergonomic evaluation, contact Ginger Hein, ext. 8555, hein@ucar.edu.)

Steve notes that field programs have already provided a testbed of sorts for telecommuting, with many dispersed staff collaborating with each other in real time. "Look at TOGA COARE [the Tropical Ocean and Global Atmosphere program's Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment, held in the western Pacific in 1992-93]. It was the ultimate example of remote working. All through the project I corresponded with people on the scene via e-mail."

To see how rigid the old paradigm of fixed-location work can be, Steve points to the educational process. "We take people fresh out of school, where they've been doing assignments wherever they like. We put them into an office environment, plunk them down at a desk, and tell them, 'You're going to sit here eight hours a day for the rest of your life.' " Those days, for better or worse, appear to be going the way of McGuffey's Reader. •BH

If you have any thoughts or experiences to share regarding remote work, please send them to question@ucar.edu. We'll compile your responses and publish them (as space permits) in an upcoming issue.

Ben Domenico, Unidata

"Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't"

A few Unidata staff are now in the midst of a four-month experiment in telecommuting. "We don't have a fancy, formal plan," says Ben Domenico, Unidata's program manager. Six employees (including Ben) are participating. Three of those are already attempting to spend one day a week working at home, a goal inspired by the Denver metro area's Pollution Solution program to reduce commuting.

Because Unidata's work is so closely tied with the data it provides to universities, high-speed connections from home are a must. "Our philosophy there--and we had this before telecommuting came up--was that we'd provide communication software and a modem for any employee who needed it." Older computers, if available, can be taken home, but Unidata is not furnishing new machines or paying for remote workers' phone lines.

According to Ben, the networking available for remote work isn't yet up to speed. "Often in training sessions [for remote work], the technical end is portrayed as the easy part. Strangely enough for a place like Unidata, our networking to [employees'] homes isn't what we'd like." The exception is for group members exploring Java-based programming. "It's pretty much platform-independent, so people can do their programming on their home PC."

As for Ben's own telecommuting, "sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. I have a lot of on-site meetings, so I can't schedule a given day off site very easily just yet. However, a lot of my coordination involves people in the university community, and I can do that just as well from home."

Dave Carlson, ATD

"We're a group problem-solving organization"

Ask Dave Carlson about telecommuting, and he may turn your question on its head. The ATD director, who served on the remote work subcommittee, wonders not so much whether telecommuting is practical as why it's seen as desirable. "If everyone's happier and more productive working away, what are the disincentives at the [office]?"

While Dave is supportive of remote work as one piece in a suite of options, he sees important reasons why NCAR shouldn't mandate mass telecommuting. "The examples we've seen from the commercial realm are very formal: 'You will telecommute. You'll only spend two or three days a week in your central office.' At NCAR, we're a group problem-solving organization. Our interactions are key to how we get our work done. Can a scientist go home to write a research paper? Sure, I think anybody could. What we have to ask is, are there disincentives in terms of distraction at the workplace that we can fix?"

Dave's home is only a ten-minute bike ride from the Foothills Lab, and he's impressed at how much the desire for reduced commuting is driving telecommuting. "We have a lot of staff in ATD who come up from Denver, even southeast Denver, and their commutes are long and stressful." Even the weekend-warrior drive on I-70 is a consideration. "We have some staff who work weekends at home and take off Wednesday or Thursday to go to the mountains and avoid the ski traffic."

Dave doesn't see the institution saving much money through remote work. "Unless you can shift people out of their regular offices, you won't actually achieve cost savings." However, he is comfortable with how things are evolving. "We are in a de facto situation where many people are working one or two days at home, and I don't consider that to be a big issue."

Tammy Sorensen, FSS

"It helps my morale"

As the facilities coordinator for Facilities Support Services, Tammy Sorensen helps track the status of UCAR's half-million square feet of real estate. Much of that work is now done from Tammy's home in the northeast part of Longmont. For the past year, Tammy has telecommuted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. "I really, really wanted to try this. My two managers [Pat Harris and Julie Emo] have both been very supportive."

FSS supplied Tammy with a new computer and modem for her remote work. "A big part of my responsibility has been running the Space Manager software that links to our AutoCAD [computer-aided design] program," she says. Most of the needed software and data resides on Tammy's hard drive, so long-lasting phone connections and an extra phone line aren't required. Every 15 minutes her computer automatically dials up to retrieve e-mail. To keep the distraction level down, Tammy checks her PhoneMail frequently rather than having her office calls forwarded to her home.

"I really have established myself at home as I would in the office. I see it as a privilege to telecommute, so I try very hard to make it work. I usually end up working nine hours a day instead of seven or eight. I do a lot less socializing, and instead of taking an hour for lunch, I'll go fix lunch and get back to work. It helps my morale."

For Tammy, the biggest bonus of remote working is the elimination of a 44-mile round trip to the office. "In the summer I can go out and start my gardening right after work. I think it's the greatest thing."

Dolores Kiessling, COMET

"I'm still interested in what's going on"

Dolores Kiessling's job fairly begs for remote work. She provides data support for the visiting instructors that teach COMET's on-site courses for federal meteorologists. The teachers often burn midnight oil during the week to get their classes organized, and much of the work involves access to data-intensive case studies of meteorological events.

That's where Dolores comes in. "I'm mostly manipulating the data. The instructors often prepare for classes after hours, so a lot of times I'm working at night. If not, I'm always checking my messages."

When courses are in session, Dolores's schedule varies; otherwise, she spends Tuesdays and Thursdays working at home. "At first it was tough getting things together and keeping connected, but now it's working really well for the things I have to do." COMET has provided Dolores with the basics of a complete home office: desk, chair, computer, modem, and a second phone line.

Remote working makes it easier for Dolores to keep track of her three-year-old son and ten-month-old daughter. "I have my mother or my mother-in-law come over on the days when I telecommute to keep an eye on the kids. I do get to spend more time with them than I would if I worked in the office five days a week." On the other hand, Dolores has battled the sense of workplace disconnection common to telecommuters. "Sometimes I feel like I get left out of the loop on things. It's a matter of getting people to remember that even though my door's closed, I'm still interested in what's going on here."

Mike Daniels, RAF

"I lobbied for it"

Last spring, Mike Daniels spent the lion's share of his work time--three days a week--at his home in Broomfield. It wasn't far from ATD's Research Aviation Facility at Jeffco, but he needed the distance. Mike was charged with writing a new program, Xbuild, that required particular focus.

"It's a piece of software that configures a research aircraft for a particular project," explains Mike. Xbuild tells the user where instruments are mounted and how they're configured; it also provides a header used to decode the master tape on which most in-flight data are stored.

Mike knew beforehand that telecommuting would help him get the job done, thanks to recent versions of a PC-based Unix operating system called Linux that allows him to do Unix programming on his home computer. "I lobbied for it [remote work]. I saw the increasing amount of computer power via Linux, which gives me a readily available platform I didn't have before. The increasing modem speeds also helped." Mike's modem was the only item supplied by RAF for his remote work.

On his days at home, Mike would carry out most of the debugging, testing, and compiling needed. "Then I'd want some interaction with the programmers here at RAF. That's when I'd bring in the software interface. It really worked out nicely."

Some of Mike's regular duties as system administrator demand on-site attention, but he hopes to eventually move to a remote working plan of one or two days a week. "It allows me to balance my time here with some programming time at home. It's an easy way for me to partition my time between 'quiet mode' and 'putting out fires mode.' "

The ultimate telecommute

Perhaps you can use it to buy a car, find a spouse, or write to the President. But is the Internet any place to get a doctorate? Brian Heckman and Vickie Johnson will find out over the next three years. The two COMET managers (Brian, the Educational Resource Center; Vickie, the Outreach Program) have embarked on a doctoral program taught on line through Nova Southeastern University, based in Fort Lauderdale. Vickie and Brian, who hold master's degrees in meteorology, are now enrolled in the school's Ed.D. program in instructional technology and distance education.

Brian Heckman (Photo by Curt Zukosky)

It's no fly-by-night arrangement. Founded in the 1960s as a graduate school in the sciences, Nova is now Florida's largest private, fully accredited university, with 14,500 students and extensive programs in the health professions, law, oceanography, and education. The school is one of the nation's leaders in Internet-based teaching. Hundreds of doctorates have been completed at Nova through distance work coupled with a few intensive on-campus visits. Each new distance student joins a cluster, a cohort of around 30 classmates who interact through e-mail, discussion groups, and real-time chat based on assigned readings. Vickie and Brian are part of Nova's third cluster to date in their degree program.

"I resisted this at first," says Brian, who had been toying with getting a doctorate since about 1990. He could think only of Radar O'Reilly of "M.A.S.H." getting his training by correspondence. However, only a few other U.S. doctoral programs exist in instructional design, and none of them would mesh with Vickie's and Brian's full-time work at COMET. In fact, says Brian, "The University of Georgia doesn't permit you to be employed outside the program."

With each others' encouragement, Vickie and Brian took the plunge in January. They spent a week on campus in Florida last month and will return for two-week summer intensives and other, shorter visits in between their distance learning.

"Our cluster comes from a diverse, broad-based population," says Brian. Virtually all of them are 30 or older. "I'd say more than half had looked at other programs and chosen this one. They weren't looking for a cheap or easy way to do it."

Vickie Johnson (Photo by Curt Zukosky)

Along with the usual doctoral-level reading load, Vickie and Brian will spend hours on line communicating with their peers in formats such as WEBBOARD, a World Wide Web-based forum. "It reminds me of struggling with a foreign language," says Brian. According to Vickie, "if you can't type well, you're in big trouble."

COMET will benefit directly as its two doctoral students complete their work. The program requires its students not only to be employed by an organization that is or could be using instructional design, but also to complete a practicum (in lieu of a dissertation) that addresses a relevant workplace issue. "That's one of the elements that attracted me to the program," says Vickie. "COMET has lots of areas that need attention but not much time in which to work on them." •BH

Networking from home: still a challenge

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in working at home is the lack of high-speed access to computers based on site. Modem speeds continue to rise, with many now at the level of 28 kilobits per second (Kbps). However, these speeds are dwarfed by the extremely rapid access of more than 10 megabytes per second provided by NCAR's in-house networking. Marla Meehl, manager of SCD's Network Engineering and Technology Section (NETS), provides this perspective on the future of network access for remote work.

For most remote workers, high-speed access to NCAR/UCAR/UOP computing resources would be an essential requirement. NETS has done some preliminary research into the nature and cost of possible high-speed access services. Services considered include ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), cable modems, and outsourcing dial-in service. Each possibility has its drawbacks.

• ISDN is relatively expensive, not yet widely deployed in the NCAR/UCAR employee service area, and provides only a marginal speed improvement.

• Cable modems have yet to be deployed in the NCAR/UCAR employee service area and could be quite expensive (on the order of $150 per month) assuming deployment ever occured. However, cable modems would provide multimegabit access speeds.

• Outsourcing dial-in service means paying for employee home access to a commercial Internet access service such as MCI, Sprint, or SuperNet. The main drawback to these services is that 28 Kbps is a typical maximum access speed, though moves are being made to install both ISDN and higher-speed modems. Also, the use of a commercial Internet access service would raise routing, charging, security, and statistics issues.

More general issues are involved in supporting users at home. Providing hardware support can be very cumbersome and expensive, and the access is not intended for uses unrelated to work. In any case, supporting remote workers with high-speed access services could require substantial effort and expense. •Marla Meehl, NETS

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu