Telecommuting can challenge employers

With gasoline prices expected to remain uncomfortably high, many small businesses are letting some of their staffers work at home. And some owners are discovering that allowing employees to telecommute can require a different management style, and some basic trust.

Allowing employees to telecommute can be challenging for a boss who’s used to having everyone in the office in plain sight — and who now has much less control over someone who’s working in pajamas with “The View” on TV in the background. Or a staffer who takes time away from work during the day to start cooking dinner or walk the dog.

Owners can find themselves worrying about the work getting done, although it should be clear from telecommuters’ output whether their productivity is suffering, or whether they’re meeting deadlines.

Lloyd Princeton, who owns a consulting firm with offices on both coasts, has seven employees, including one who telecommutes. Princeton said he wonders about what his home-based staffer is doing.

“The biggest issue I have is tracking time and knowing when he’s working,” said Princeton, the president of Design Management Co. “The doubt starts to happen when he has offsite meetings — various doctor appointments or the vet.”

But, Princeton said, “he gets the work done. He does quality work for clients.”

Princeton said he tries to find a balance in general with his staffers — “I tend to pay attention to detail, but I do my best not to micromanage” — but a telecommuting situation presents more of a problem.

“It welcomes and invites the doubt,” he said.

Of course, onsite workers may come in late after a doctor’s appointment or run personal errands during the afternoon just as Princeton’s worker does. But for many owners, well, it just seems different when they can see employees coming and going.

Still, there are whole companies and even industries that now rely on employees who work at home, such as customer service or telemarketing firms. And many use high-tech tools, including conferencing and networking systems, to ease communications between telecommuters and the office, and some use software to help monitor the flow of work.

Steve Lundin, who owns BIGFrontier Communications Group, a Chicago-based public relations firm, has learned to shrug off the doubts.

“You’re trusting people to do the work” Lundin said. “At the end of the day, there is some fluff time you’re paying for, but what you bill out for is far more than what you’re paying them.”

But Lundin does see some downsides to telecommuting: “One of the minuses is additional management of people.” He speaks to his telecommuters more often over the phone, and that takes up time.

Lundin noted that his contact with onsite workers may be just as non-face-to-face as it is with those who are telecommuting, so the lack of physical contact isn’t a drawback.

“I talk to these people several times a day,” he said of telecommuters. “When I had them in the office before, they’d be in their own office down the hall and we did most of our communicating by e-mail.”

Tory Johnson, chief executive of Women For Hire, a New York-based recruitment services firm, finds that telecommuters can end up being out the loop, a problem that can occur no matter how hard the entire staff works at keeping everyone in touch. There can be bruised feelings, whether the staffer is missing out on something work-related, or even a bit of gossip that everyone else was sharing.

That kind of disconnect is one of the downsides of telecommuting in her firm. “Some of our best ideas, our most fun conversations come from spontaneity, working in a big open office and chitchat,” Johnson said.

Some telecommuters — particularly if they live quite a distance away from the office — never show up in person, and that can work quite well for many companies. Lundin, however, said he’s concerned about his telecommuters losing touch with the rest of the workers. His solution is to require them to put in some face time on Mondays and Fridays — which in effect means there are no full-time telecommuters in his company.

Joyce Rosenberg writes about small business issues for the Associated Press.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Members of Gravitics' team and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen stand in front of a mockup of a space module interior on Thursday, August 17, 2023 at Gravitics' Marysville facility. Left to right: Mark Tiner, government affairs representative; Jiral Shah, business development; U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen; Mike DeRosa, marketing; Scott Macklin, lead engineer. (Gravitics.)
Marysville startup prepares for space — the financial frontier

Gravitics is building space station module prototypes to one day house space travelers and researchers.

Orca Mobility designer Mike Lowell, left, and CEO Bill Messing at their office on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2023 in Granite Falls, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Could a Granite Falls startup’s three-wheeler revolutionize delivery?

Orca Mobility’s battery-powered, three-wheel truck is built on a motorcycle frame. Now, they aim to make it self-driving.

Catherine Robinweiler leads the class during a lab session at Edmonds College on April 29, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Grant aids apprenticeship program in Mukilteo and elsewhere

A $5.6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant will boost apprenticeships for special education teachers and nurses.

Peoples Bank is placing piggy banks with $30 around Washington starting Aug. 1.
(Peoples Bank)
Peoples Bank grant program seeks proposals from nonprofits

Peoples Bank offers up to $35,000 in Impact Grants aimed at helping communities. Applications due Sept. 15.

Workers build the first all-electric commuter plane, the Eviation Alice, at Eviation's plant on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in Arlington, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Arlington’s Eviation selects Seattle firm to configure production plane

TLG Aerospace chosen to configure Eviation Aircraft’s all-electric commuter plane for mass production.

Jim Simpson leans on Blue Ray III, one of his designs, in his shop on Friday, August 25, 2023, in Clinton, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Whidbey Island master mechanic building dream car from “Speed Racer”

Jim Simpson, 68, of Clinton, is using his knowledge of sports cars to assemble his own Mach Five.

Inside the new Boeing 737 simulator at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo, Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
New Boeing 737 simulator takes ‘flight’ in Mukilteo

Pilots can test their flying skills or up their game at Simulation Flight in Mukilteo.

An Amazon worker transfers and organizes items at the new PAE2 Amazon Fulfillment Center on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amazon cuts ribbon on colossal $355M fulfillment center in Arlington

At 2.8 million square feet, the facility is the largest of its kind in Washington. It can hold 40 million “units” of inventory.

A computer rendering of the North Creek Commerce Center industrial park in development at 18712 Bothell-Everett Highway. (Kidder Mathews)
Developer breaks ground on new Bothell industrial park

The North Creek Commerce Center on Bothell Everett Highway will provide warehouse and office space in three buildings.

Dan Bates / The Herald
Funko president, Brian Mariotti is excited about the growth that has led his company to need a 62,000 square foot facility in Lynnwood.
Photo Taken: 102312
Former Funko CEO resigns from the Everett company

Brian Mariotti resigned Sept. 1, six weeks after announcing he was taking a six-month sabbatical from the company.

Cash is used for a purchase at Molly Moon's Ice Cream in Edmonds, Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Paper or plastic? Snohomish County may require businesses to take cash

County Council member Nate Nehring proposed an ordinance to ban cashless sales under $200. He hopes cities will follow suit.

A crowd begins to form before a large reception for the opening of Fisherman Jack’s at the Port of Everett on Wednesday, August 30, 2023, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Seafood with a view: Fisherman Jack’s opens at Port of Everett

“The port is booming!” The new restaurant is the first to open on “restaurant row” at the port’s Waterfront Place.