Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Being present at work doesn't have to mean being there

January 12, 2013

It’s a sign of the times. When a relative recently had foot surgery that would keep her from her job as an administrative assistant for six weeks, she proposed that she work part time from home. She had all the tools she needed on her home computer, and files could be dropped off once or twice a week. Life would go on as if she had never vacated her desk. To my astonishment, her employer declined and never explained his reasoning.

The sign of the times isn’t that he refused, but that we were both amazed that he did. She could have kept the office humming from home, instead of finding piles of work undone when she returned. But it was not to be.

Such narrow-mindedness is growing rare as employers have to contend with a new generation of workers who expect to work from home at least part of the time, and entirely from home when feasible. Studies show that some 50 percent of all jobs in America today can be done full time or part time from home.

The software firm Wrike (www.wrike.com) recently released the results of a study that showed 83 percent of the work force labors at home at least part of the day. Younger workers have used texting, videoconferencing and cell phones so often that moving those behaviors to the job is as natural as breathing.

I can hear naysayers angrily shaking their heads—doesn’t working from home destroy unit cohesion and team effectiveness? Don’t the employees lack for emotional attachment to the team? Isn’t it an invitation to goof off?

Of course those things can happen. There are some jobs that require proximity, and some employees may take undue advantage of being able to work from home. But savvy employers are more often today assuming that experienced “remoters” can work productively and make constant attendance the exception.

There are two keys to remote work. One is to think of work in “tasks” rather than hours, so productivity is a matter of getting things done instead of putting in time. The other is to stay in touch virtually every moment that you’d ordinarily be available in the office. That means using e-mail, texting and video to send and receive streams of information back and forth with co-workers. Don’t just vanish behind the walls of the local coffee shop; stay hooked up.

Network with co-workers when possible. Even if you’re in different cities, talk on the phone about kids, health and other non-work topics to boost camaraderie. Be available for sudden phone calls or conference texting. Answer e-mails promptly and keep everybody informed about what you’re doing. Act just like the colleague in Boston is sitting in the next cube.

Occasionally hold virtual events, like video parties, where the office holds the party but remoters can participate via video. Even regular team meetings by phone will help foster team spirit. Indulge in a little innocent office gossip. Nothing hurtful, just personal tidbits and updates. Who’s had a baby? Who’s having surgery?

The ultimate in remote participation may be on the way. Suitable Technologies (www.suitabletech.com) has a line of robots it calls “Beam Remote Presence.” It looks like a small video monitor rising high on two stalks from a little plastic cart. In use, the remote worker’s face appears on the monitor.

A video on the company’s website shows an employee holding meetings and tracking problems entirely from home, imposing her presence at several corporate locations entirely with the Beam. She “beams” into several offices, and in each case she “puts herself” into a different Beam unit, which takes off from its charging station and heads out to meet with real people. Beams can even meet with each other, as happens in the video when two Beams almost collide in a hallway.

Depending on your disposition, the Beam is either beyond cool, or as creepy as it gets. We’ve grown used to having the boss on the phone or even in a brief online chat, but suddenly turning around to find his or her face scowling at you from a rolling monitor might be a tad disconcerting.

Working remotely offers the employer a lot of benefits. Employees tend to be happier because they’re taking back substantial amounts of control of their lives. Offices can be smaller and cost less. Employees can be drawn from a wider pool, including the handicapped, and can work from anywhere in the world.

There are unique demands on the company’s IT staff, of course, but today’s products usually come equipped for remote use right out of the box. I doubt most of us will find the Beam listed in our budget next year, but laptops are cheap nowadays and they come with WiFi.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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