June 19, 2008 -- This year's skyrocketing gas prices are enough to make even the most diehard office suck-ups fantasize about finding a job that lets them telecommute. But is finding a new job that lets you work from home a realistic goal or just a pipe dream?
Thirty-three percent of U.S. companies allow employees to telecommute on a part-time basis, while 21 percent allow it full-time, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
In other words, although work-at-home jobs do exist, they remain few and far between.
Of course, not all professions are telecommuting-friendly. If you don't work in information technology, sales, customer service, creative services such as writing and Web design, or support services such as administration and finance, you'll probably be hard-pressed to find a job that lets you work from home on a regular basis.
For the sake of argument, though, let's say your vocation does fall into the telecommuting-friendly category. What tools can you use to find the employers and job openings that will let you work from home one, two, even five days a week?
"100 Best Companies" lists: Magazines such as Working Mother and Fortune publish these lists every year (easily found online), complete with coverage of the Top 100 companies that permit telecommuting. Because smaller organizations usually don't make these lists, consult your regional publications, too. Local business journals, regional magazines and the business section of many local newspapers often publish Top 100 employer lists of their own. In fact, if you're not already scanning your local business section on a daily basis for articles about telecommuting-friendly employers (trust me, they abound), add that to your to-do list.
Job hunting sites, revisited: The job search site SimplyHired offers a mom-friendly job search filter, meaning you can narrow your search to companies that Working Mother has given the family-friendly stamp of approval. And while that won't guarantee that the jobs your search turns up will allow telecommuting, you're at least zeroing in on the companies with better benefits for parents (which can be code for "telecommuting allowed if you convince us you're worth it"). Also, I know this may sound obvious, but using the keywords "telecommuting" and "virtual office" on your SimplyHired searches — or on the searches you perform on any other job hunting site for that matter — can help you cut to the chase.
Six degrees of separation: You've probably heard it said that networking cures all employment ills. You may even consider yourself a master networker. But I'm here to tell you that if you haven't alerted everyone you've ever met in your life about your quest for a telecommuting job (that is, everyone you can tell without jeopardizing your current job), you're not networking hard enough. Same goes for those of you who aren't actively rubbing elbows or trading web forum advice with fellow members of an alumni association, chamber of commerce, professional organization, or even a neighborhood, community, or cultural group.
Your friendly neighborhood staffing agency: Sometimes IT pros, creatives, and other business professionals at the top of their game can nab a telecommuting-friendly short-term contract position through an employment agency. Because the hiring company's top priority in this situation is usually to get the Web site or product packaging it needed last month designed, coded, written, edited, tested and promoted as soon as humanly possible, top talent under serious consideration for a several-month-long job might have a bit of bargaining power.
"Once a contractor has established trust with the client and that the work can be done from home, clients are usually open to it," said Matt Grant, spokesperson for Aquent, a Boston-based international staffing agency for marketing and creative professionals.
That said, agencies don't get many client requests for full-time telecommuters. (At Aquent, Grant says, that number is less than 1 percent.) So your best bet is to land the contract job first, then negotiate. While there aren't any statistics on the number of contract workers who've managed to sweet-talk their way into a telecommuting setup, anecdotally, I can tell you this goes on all the time; I know dozens of contractors who've done so. But again, it's the exception, not the rule.
Legit work at home Web Sites: If you don't have the skill set to nab a white collar telecommuting gig — or you don't have the time to pay your dues before securing those almighty work at home privileges — fear not. There are a few online havens where you can find legit home-based job leads and advice that won't cost you a dime.
Rather than waste your time reading scam after scam advertised on Craigslist and through Google ads, see RatRaceRebellion.com, which screens work-at-home job listings and posts the pick of the litter on a daily basis. Run by the authors of "The Two-Second Commute: Join the Exploding Ranks of Freelance Virtual Assistants," this site features both "earn a little pocket money" job listings (such as filling out online surveys) and "earn a living" listings (such as transcription and call-center jobs), as well as a list of telecommuting-friendly companies and a goldmine of tips for weeding out work at home scams.
The good folks at RatRaceRebellion.com will be the first to tell you to vet any telecommuting opportunities you find on their site yourself, just as you would any job listing; while they do their best to weed out the rogues, there are no guarantees. (Also, you might want to ignore the Google ads on the site, just to be safe.)
When playing detective, the Better Business Bureau is a great place to start, as is the Federal Trade Commission's Work at Home Schemes page. And don't miss the forums on the work at home mom sites WAHM.com and WorkPlaceLikeHome.com, which abound with scam alerts.
Patience and perseverance: Know that there's no silver bullet or quick fix for crafting a work at home career. You need to do the research, dazzle employers and have a healthy dose of patience just as you would with any job hunt.
If, however, you're sick of putting your fate in the hands of interviewers and hiring managers, there is another option: starting your own home-based freelance business. That's a topic for another week, though, so stay tuned.
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