4:00 AM EST, November 6, 2011
I hate wearing pants. They’re uncomfortable and restrictive, the waist too snug, the legs too itchy. And they deny people their inalienable right to see my calves, which I consider two of my best features.
Yet here I sit. In an office. In pants.
It’s the noncozy fate of the American worker in today’s notoriously pro-pants business environment. But, fellow shorts enthusiasts, there is a way out: telecommuting.
I’ve received several questions on the subject of working from home, from people who want to do it and bosses who wonder whether it’s a good idea. So I recently rolled up my pants legs and did some reporting.
First off, working from home, full time or just occasionally, is no longer rare. According to WorldatWork, a nonprofit association that studies human resources issues, 26.2 million people worked from home or remotely for an entire day at least once a month in 2010. That’s roughly 20 percent of the American workforce.
The U.S. government has been pushing hard to increase telecommuting among federal employees; according to a report released to Congress in February, 113,946 federal employees did it in 2009. At the end of last year, President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which gives federal agencies a framework to boost flexible work arrangements.
“If your firm is not allowing it, you’re in the minority now,” said David Harrison, a management professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business. “This has become a normal rather than a special arrangement.”
There are many reasons for that, not all of which involve the contentment that comes from being pants-free at home. Harrison, who has researched telecommuting, said working from home not only tends to increase employee satisfaction and retention, it also can save companies money on real estate and office upkeep.
And, perhaps most important, people who work from home tend to be more productive.
At the health insurance company Aetna, about 33,000 employees — 40 percent of the workforce — telecommute. Bob Rogers, a senior program manager at the company, said performance reviews have consistently shown that teleworkers hold “a bit of an edge” over office-based employees.
“They really enjoy it,” Rogers said. “They appreciate the fact that they have that flexibility, and they maintain their performance because they want to be able to continue that.”
Aetna does have rules for telecommuters. For example, they can’t just work at the kitchen table. There has to be a designated office space in the house, which the company helps set up with appropriate furniture and phone lines.
Some employers worry that telecommuters will become too detached from managers and co-workers. Rogers said Aetna makes sure managers stay in frequent contact with people working from home, noting that even in a crowded office much of the communication takes place electronically.
“Our communications as a society are becoming more electronic,” he said. “Employees (instant message) each other from the next work station. It seems like our culture is adapting to this being a natural fit anyway.”
More than 6,500 of the roughly 10,000 employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are teleworkers. More than half of them do it full time, what the agency calls “hoteling,” and the rest split time between home and the office in Alexandria, Va.
Danette Campbell, senior adviser for telework, said internal reviews have found that patent examiners who telecommute produce an average of 14 additional hours of work per year than office-based examiners.
“When people don’t have to suit up in the morning, get behind the wheel of a car and drive an hour to get to a computer and a telephone, and then do the same drill again in the evening, they have more time,” Campbell said. “It really is a win-win for the agency and for our employees.”
Also, she said, it would cost the agency about $19.8 million in additional office space to handle the thousands of teleworking engineers, scientists and attorneys.
So, clearly, there’s good evidence that allowing people to work from home can not only be cost effective, it can also boost productivity. Quite frankly, it baffles me why more companies don’t allow this. Unless your job is something that simply can’t be done remotely, like factory work or retail sales, why not?
If you’re a manager unsure of whether to let workers do this, take a close look at the possible upsides and give it a shot. If nothing else, it will quickly become clear that someone is taking advantage of such an arrangement. And in that case, you can always pull back.
If you’re an employee who’d like to be enjoying a pants-free lifestyle at home, here are a few things you should do before running it by the boss:
First, gather some data that support the efficacy of what you’re proposing. (Feel free to laminate this column and wear it around your neck.)
Next, write a succinct pitch that explains how working outside the office can benefit your company and describe how you would set up a home office that would allow you to accomplish any and all tasks.
Finally, propose teleworking on a trial basis. Tell your boss, “Let’s give it a month. If it works, great. If not, we can always bag it.”
Odds are that once you find yourself home, able to take an occasional break to scratch the dog behind the ear or get a cup of coffee from your own coffee maker, you’ll work harder than ever to preserve the privilege.
Now get out there, American workers, and see to it that you never have to wear pants again.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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