Telecommuting Downside

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2003 Newhouse News Service
Photo by Monika Graff

Most telecommuters started working from home in hopes of striking a happier balance between job and family. Now some are finding that they labor more hours and endure greater stress, only to see their careers nosedive.

New research suggests employees may add tension to their lives by telecommuting if they don't first make a careful assessment of their personalities and employment situations.

"People have trouble shutting work off," said Ellen Ernst Kossek, professor of human resources at Michigan State University, one of the study's authors. "There's confusion for family members. They see you home and they want to ask you a question, and then you yell at them."

Along with researchers at Harvard University and Canada's Simon Fraser University, Kossek interviewed 300 employees and 95 managers across the country. They learned that workers' home lives suffered if they telecommuted with inadequate space or technological infrastructure.

Even if those problems were absent, telecommuters complained that family and friends didn't understand or respect the fact that they had full-time jobs. Others missed the give-and-take among colleagues and the casual hallway encounters that kept them in the know.

Donna Leff, a 36-year-old communications consultant who works from her home in Ridgewood, N.J., sometimes is torn between her job and her two girls, ages 2 and 5. She worries that she can't satisfy either kids or clients.

"You feel guilty on both ends," Leff said. "It's a little confusing to them that mommy's going to work but she's here in the basement."

New Yorker Charles Gallo found telecommuting lonely. "The part of the day I most looked forward to was the few minutes of talking to the counterperson at the bagel store," said the 40-year-old computer programmer.

The International Telework Association and Council estimates that 28 million Americans regularly worked outside of the office in 2001, up from 20 million in 1999. Multiple surveys find that employees welcome being able to work remotely, are more productive and are more loyal to companies that give them more flexibility.

Employers also see pluses. AT&T Corp., based in Bedminster, N.J., estimates it realizes some $150 million in business benefits each year from telework, including higher productivity, real estate savings and enhanced recruitment and retention. Seventeen percent of AT&T managers work at home full time and 33 percent do so at least once a week, said Joseph Roitz, telework director, who works from his home in Little Rock, Ark.

Though some workers are discouraged and returning to the office, academics and career coaches say companies shouldn't cut out flexible programs -- they should just help determine when such options are a good fit.

At the Procter & Gamble Co., entire teams transition to the work-at-home program together, with extensive training on telecommunications technology and discussions of how interactions will change once some members are out of the office, said Laurie DeMarco, Cincinnati-based manager for workplace effectiveness. Three to six months later, managers check to make sure no problems are developing.

Even though the whole team doesn't end up telecommuting, the process includes everyone, allowing Procter & Gamble to avoid many problems.

"People have more issues when they're the lone telecommuter -- they don't get called to meetings, they lose the face time," DeMarco said.

That's what happened to Philip Obbard, 29, when he moved to New York City to be closer to his then-fiancee and began telecommuting in his job as a Web programmer for a Boston consulting firm.

"My rapport with co-workers was instantly lessened; I was losing my ability to get first pick of projects, to know when a project was going well or going badly," Obbard said. "If you had even a modicum of ambition you would realize within a few months that you were never going to achieve any growth within the company."

Now manager of Internet technology for Slim-Fast Foods Co., Obbard feels the year he spent telecommuting was a waste of time.

Some employers share his views.

Michael Keresman III, chief executive officer of Cleveland-based CardinalCommerce Corp., which provides payment authentication services for e-commerce, says letting employees work at home thwarts informal brainstorming and bonding. Moreover, when his clients visit the office, they like to meet the people they're dealing with and see a bustling, professional environment.

"There is perhaps nothing more disconcerting to a customer than walking into a building where there's supposed to be people working, and nobody's there," Keresman said. Seeing everyone in the office also gives him an important management tool, he said -- he can identify when an employee isn't interacting well with others.

John W. Kabaker, CEO of Vista International Insurance Brokers in Novato, Calif., denies requests to work from home not only to preserve the spontaneity of collaboration, but to avoid exposing the company to frivolous workers' compensation suits or loss of confidential information.

If you can and do telecommute, experts say, face any problems head on.

"You've got to set some clear boundaries with the kids and say, `Mom needs to work to help support the family, and during these hours, you have to pretend I'm not here,"' advised Joan C. Williams, a professor and director of the Program on Gender, Work & Family at American University's law school. "Healthy relationships are about caring with limits."

Having a separate work space and eliminating distractions -- whether the dog, the baby or Oprah -- are vital to being productive. So is routine -- showering, dressing and getting to work in your home office at regular hours.

Chris Kash, a finance manager for Procter & Gamble who telecommutes one or two days a week, turns on the light outside his office door to signal his wife and toddler that he's busy. Kash saves time by skipping a commute, schedules evening teleconferences with colleagues in Asia and enjoys the flexibility of watching his son at lunchtime while his wife runs errands.

To avoid being marginalized, telecommuters should identify when it's crucial to be at the office -- whether for a staff meeting, coffee break or happy hour -- and make sure to show up, Williams said. They also should go out of their way to keep in touch with co-workers and managers using the phone when possible instead of e-mail.

People must be highly motivated and disciplined to telecommute successfully, experts say.

"Work at home is not for hermits," said Procter & Gamble's DeMarco. "Remind yourself to reach out and work with other people."

Resources on the Web:

The International Telework Association & Council,

The Telework Coalition,

The Families and Work Institute,

Gil Gordon Associates,

(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)

This story was originally published Wednesday, July 9, 2003.