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Tattle Telecommutant

Tom Bentley
Robert Scheer

Keyboard Soloist: The author, Aptos telecommuter Tom Bentley, shows off his ten-digit mastery of the computer keyboards in his bedroom office.

An insider explains all about the joys, temptations and future of working wired to a boss from home, and dispels a few fantasies, too

By Tom Bentley

OOPS, CAUGHT MYSELF STARING OUT the window--lucky for me that the boss isn't around. Of course, it would be pretty unusual if he was around, considering that he works out of an office in the East Bay, and has yet to step into my office, which happens to be in a spare bedroom in my house. You see, I'm a telecommutant.

Okay, we're really called telecommuters, but I think we might be another breed altogether--telecommutant works for me. According to some recent statistics on regular telecommuters, there are between eight and nine million of us now, 300,000 in the Greater Bay Area alone, and the national numbers are predicted to go up to 13 million by 1998.

How could it be possible that employers all over the country could sacrifice the ability to drop by your desk to at least verify that you're still breathing? Easy--there's lots of evidence that telecommuters can work more productively, cheaply, flexibly and with more satisfaction than on-site employees. Of course, for some sectors of the business world, the suggestion that a telecommuting plan be implemented would be like asking whether you can have a hot tub next to your desk (though that sounds pretty good to me).

I've passed the five-year point at my position with an East Bay software company, and more than three of those years have been as a telecommuter, so I feel like the grizzled veteran in a vanguard movement. Telecommuting consultants say that one of the biggest factors in getting telecommuting established at a company is that someone there must be a champion, or "informed defender," of the practice for it to become established. My example bears that out.

Three years ago, I was going to quit my job and move (for love, just to make your heartstrings quiver) to Santa Cruz. My boss, however, suggested that I at least try to complete a project in progress down here, and then maybe there would be another one after that. He was able to convince his bosses, and what was offered as a temporary fix became a settled situation.

The Basics

IT'S LESS USUAL FOR A SMALL employer like mine to implement such programs than larger companies, but all it takes is one successful example to open some doors. (One of my department peers began doing it not long after me.) Trust--in yourself, as well as between you and your manager and company­seems to be the most significant issue, once the basics are met.

Of course, not all jobs are adaptable. Orchestra conductors, for example, might not make ideal telecommuters, even with video hookup. I happen to write software manuals, so it's almost a natural. I have one computer to run the software that I'm writing about, one computer on which to write it, and a couple of modems to move info back and forth between me and the office.

Of course, it isn't all loose slippers and champagne bubbles. Putting a software manual together does involve a lot of collaboration between the programmers, the product managers, the producers and the layout artists--and, in software, it's almost mandatory that one step forward is followed by two staggers back.

Advances in technology aside, sometimes it's the old-fashioned phone that's a telecommuter's best friend. If you don't make regular appearances around the office, it's critical that you at the very least make regular calls to the people involved in your projects. Email is now commonplace, but the telephone is still the closest substitute for face time when it comes to idea exchange. This is important not only for the trading of information essential to a project, but the intangibles that accompany--and sometimes make possible--real communication.

That said, if I'm not at a deadline time on a manual, it's not that unusual to go two or three days without even checking in. Which leads many to pose one of the standard questions asked of telecommuters: "What do you really do all day?"

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A valuable "how to" guide to telecommuting--for employers and employees--is AT&T's Web page on its telecommuting program.

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The Reality

THE IMPLICATION IS that all telecommuters begin their day with a few shots of tequila and then work naked. Oh, no, it's nothing that ordinary. Some days, just to liven things up, we like to crush a few Percodans into some habanero peppers, mash it into pulp and inject it into our eyeballs, and then ride the sit-down lawnmower round the living room.

All kidding aside, the range of options are what make telecommuting such a godsend. You can schedule regular exercise, you can take your car in to get it fixed, you can watch All My Children--and you can get all your work done, while saving the planet from your car's exhaust and sparing your wallet from expensive work-time lunches to boot.

Of course, you can also lose out on the best projects at work, you can be skipped over for promotions and, since you're not visible, you can simply be forgotten by a wide percentage of your peers. Those are reasons why telecommuters should at least try to attend big company functions and, if it's possible, strive to involve themselves in some of the office social rituals (you know, presents for baby showers and the like), and try to regularly remind bosses and buddies that they still exist and that they still care.

The most difficult challenge for the telecommuter might be one of its greatest advantages--privacy, also known as the flip side of neurosis-breeding isolation.

I wonder if some of my habits--like getting up and wandering aimlessly around the house and then settling back in at the computer, or lying down on the floor at sporadic moments, or periodically peering out at the neighbors' houses (because I'm sure they've been wondering why that guy doesn't go to work, dammit)--are stranger than they seem to me because I only have myself to judge them. (And hey, I'm sure the neighbors were looking at me first.)

Of course, if you telecommute for a while and spend more than an hour or two a day searching for cricket remains behind the toilet, it might not be the avenue for you.

And that isolation perhaps can "enhance" your sensitivity to people a bit: It's probably ill-advised to think that the FedEx driver is coming on to you just because she wears shorts and says "Have a nice day."

But there are some subtle advantages, in addition to fewer car repair bills and little need for suit and tie. You can really get more of a sense of control in your life, even if, like me, you still get up early and are at your computer working more or less standard business hours. I get to see the hummingbirds that flit about the nasturtiums outside my office window. I get to watch the summer ritual of the beach fog retreating in the wake of the advancing sun. I get to crush Peanut Butter Cups into bowls of ice cream and eat them at my desk without anyone commenting.

The Future

TIMES BEING WHAT they are, it's getting easier for telecommuters. There are new homes being built with pre-installed wiring for small, in-house networks, with provisions made for the usual (at least) dual-phoneline setup in rooms designed from the get-go as offices.

Some new housing tracts even have high-speed ISDN lines installed, and I've even heard of housing developers building homes with offices for both the parents and the kids--now that's cutting edge.

But really, many telecommuters can get by with one computer, one phone line, and one fast fax/modem, though you might find yourself hampered if you download/upload large files or wander through the endless corridors of the Internet.

(And, of course, talking about the Net, it's a godsend for contract writers that work at home: You can download reams of research materials, make new contacts for assignments and critique grammar on Web pages. Now that we have toddlers in playgrounds debating the merits of their favorite browsers, you know the Net is here to stay.)

Besides saving your company some bucks with renewed productivity and less office space, the firm might also save a few more when tax time rolls around as well.

California legislator Bill Baker has proposed a telecommuting bill (H.R. 1316) that would provide tax incentives, per telecommuting employee, for businesses that set up telecommuting programs.

The national Clean Air Act already nudges large employers toward pursuing telecommuting programs in order to comply with emissions regulations.

So if you're a person who daily has to resist the urge to give the single-digit salute to demented drivers on your torturous commute, telecommuting might be the answer.

Even if your company is using that keystroke-counting software to check up on you, you can still take those afternoon naps, as long as you rest your head on the keyboard. (The only thing is, after the nap, you'll still have to get your work done.)

As for me, I've just taken the plunge and quit this job that's served me so well, thinking that I'll just contract at home for the big bucks, and truly be my own boss. And, of course, if any prospective employers are reading this, I don't really waste the days watching All My Children. I'm a General Hospital kind of guy.

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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