Work From Home, Even in a Bad Economy

Ah, late spring. The tulips. The lilacs. The mountain of press releases on teleworking and how it makes for happier moms.

Look at the statistics, though, and you'll see it's not just moms, but dads, Millennials, Boomers, and anyone else who has ever spent 75 minutes slogging through 10 miles of rush hour traffic that wants to work from home once in a while. But given our crumbling economy, is the hope of convincing the boss to let you work in your slippers and bathrobe a pipe dream?

Hardly.

"Even though we're at the edge of a recession if not in it, it is the perfect time to negotiate a flexible arrangement," says Susan Seitel, president of WFC Resources, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based consultancy that helps employers tackle work place issues. "Employers are looking for ways to keep their top performers, and they're looking for ways that don't cost anything."

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Having to replace a star employee who flies the coop can cost a company 150 to 200 percent of that worker's salary, Seitel says. Considering Millennials and some of the youngest Gen X employees job-hop every one to three years, she adds, that turnover gets pretty pricey. Employers must spend time and money to hire and train new employees while sustaining losses in productivity, she said.

Right now, 25 percent of Americans telework at least eight hours a month, according to a recent report by Gartner, a leading technology research firm. But employment experts anticipate that number jumping significantly in the next year.

"Because of rising gas prices, we expect to see a spike in the number of telework requests," says Marcia Rhodes, spokesperson for WorldatWork, a global HR association.

Companies may not be lining up to hand out cost-of-living subsidies to workers feeling pain at the gas pump, she adds, but giving employees telework privileges is one band-aid employers can afford.

Add to the mix companies tripping over themselves to convince the public that they really do love the environment (really!), and you get what Seitel calls "a perfect storm" for making a convincing case for that coveted 60-second commute.

So how do you know if you're a good candidate for a telework arrangement? More important, how the heck can you get your boss's blessing?

Ask yourself the tough questions. Not all positions lend themselves to offsite work. But don't rush down the hall to chat up your boss just yet. A bit of fact-finding (not to mention soul-searching) is in order first:

Does your job require constant face time? If you can't do your job without standing three feet from your manager, coworkers and customers, you can't telework.

In case you aren't sure, creative, marketing, sales, IT, customer service and finance professionals are good candidates for working from home; bartenders, healthcare providers and auto mechanics are not.

What's your relationship with your boss? If the answer is, "not good," sources say you'd best spend the next several months charming the pants off him or her (figuratively speaking, of course) before you ask for the moon.

And if you've been at the company less than six to 12 months, it's too soon to ask for an alternative work arrangement. You need to earn the boss's trust and prove you're a hot commodity first.

Just how flexible is your boss anyway? If others on your team are already teleworking, do a little sleuthing to see if your boss is a good advocate of the program. (Hint: Making comments like, "Stan, how nice of you to grace us with your presence today — I was beginning to wonder if you still worked here," is not being a good advocate.)

Also, if your boss has come down on you for "waltzing in to work five minutes late" on numerous occasions, you might have a tough sell on your hands.

Can you get anything done working solo? Do you the need the constant threat of management lurking down the hall to light a fire under your rear, or can you crack your own whip? And how well do you handle being all by your lonesome for eight hours straight? Not everyone's cut out for making water cooler banter with their cat. Some of us need more biped interaction than others.

Write a proposal. To assuage your manager's fears that "working remotely" is code for "only remotely working," you need to make your case in writing. Specifically you need to:

Point out the business advantages. The fact that you'll be more productive with a reduced commute is a business advantage; that fact that you've always wanted to work in your jammies is not.

Include articles and research to back up your point — for example, an April 2008 study by Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center found that employees with flexible work arrangements called in sick less and were more committed to the job. Also be sure to throw in a reference to helping the company reduce its impact on the environment; after all, green is the new black.

Suggest a trial period. To ease your manager's mind, Seitel recommends a trial of one or two days a week for a maximum of 90 days. Be specific about the hours and days you'll telework each week so your manager and coworkers know what to expect. Don't choose Mondays, though, or whatever your most meeting-laden day of the week is.

Outline the specifics. How will you interact with your boss, coworkers and customers while working remotely? (Email? Conference call? Morse code?) Where will you work? (In a spare bedroom? Your finished basement?) Do you have all the necessary equipment (workstation, computer), or do you need your employer to provide some of it? Your manager will want to see that you have the resources to pull this off — and the less it costs them, the better.

Set up a yardstick for measuring success. Some managers get nervous when you're not in your chair eight hours a day. Give them a way to measure your productivity and see that you're not just watching "The Jerry Springer Show."

Specifics such as, "I will contact 60 people on the days that I work from home, I will make six sales, or I will send out this much material," will get you far, Seitel says. If you can't quantify your progress with numbers, use anecdotal yardsticks, she says, such as, "Are your coworkers satisfied? Are your customers satisfied?"

Get help. If you need help crafting your proposal, download the telecommuting template ($30) offered on www.WorkOptions.com, endorsed by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Mr. "What Color Is Your Parachute?" himself, Richard Bolles. Much cheaper than hiring a career coach.

Embrace your inner pioneer. Your company may not have a telework policy in place or any teleworkers on staff; many still don't. But that doesn't mean the conversation has to be over before it even begins. Talk to your boss. Pick a couple of the most compelling reasons why you'd like to give working from home a shot on a trial basis, and tell him or her you'd like to put together a formal proposal.

In every company with alternative work arrangements, somebody had to be the first pioneer to propose working from home. Why not you?

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author, and former cubicle dweller. Her books -- "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work, and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com

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