Working from where you live: Telecommuting in SLO County

Karen Tillman, vice president and chief communications officer for Cisco Systems, works out of her home office in San Luis Obispo.
Karen Tillman, vice president and chief communications officer for Cisco Systems, works out of her home office in San Luis Obispo.

Once each week, Karen Tillman’s commute to work takes her nearly 200 miles to San Jose. The rest of the time, it’s a journey of 10 feet — the distance from her back door to her home office.

Tillman telecommutes for her job as vice president and chief communications officer for Cisco Systems. From her 100-square-foot office, set up in a remodeled carriage house adjacent to her home, she manages a team of about 400 employees working in various places around the world.

The arrangement makes it possible for Tillman, a single mother, to raise her 8-year-old daughter in a small-town environment. Nearly all of her team also telecommutes to some degree. But is the trend favoring such flexible work arrangements coming to an end?

For some, the answer is yes. In February, Yahoo announced that it was ending all telecommuting as of June 1. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” read a memo to employees from Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Reasons to telecommute

In San Luis Obispo County, several companies continue to offer telecommuting for a variety of reasons. Paso Robles-based manufacturing software firm IQMS has about 50 remote employees, or 35 percent of its workforce, spread out over North America. Most work in the areas of sales and implementation, which means they are frequently on the road, working both from home and from clients’ offices.

“Because our primary product is software, we can be located anywhere, but we need people in the field wherever our customers are,” explained IQMS Human Resources Manager Elizabeth Alflen.

Other firms offer telecommuting for the benefit of their employees. San Luis Obispo marketing and public relations firm Barnett Cox & Associates has 16 employees, 10 of whom telecommute. Their offsite workers are part-time writers and strategists.

“There’s no question that telecommuting creates challenges for managing our business, but the flexibility helps us attract and retain talented employees,” said President/CEO Maggie Cox. “It’s what we do to make sure we have the best and brightest on our staff.”

One of those telecommuters is Susan McDonald, a part-time copywriter, who asked for the arrangement because of the hour-plus commute to work from her Cambria home. She goes into the office once a week to attend meetings and work on layouts.

“It’s really the best of both worlds,” she said. “I have a quiet work space for writing, but I also think it’s important to go in at least once a week to talk to people face-to-face. And if we’re working on something like a magazine, it helps to see it in person.”

Seeking middle ground

Some companies have turned to a model that presents a compromise between telecommuting and full-time office work. The freedom to occasionally work outside the office, whether it be for personal reasons or to meet the demands of a particular project, is embraced by San Luis Obispo-based medical website design and marketing firm Etna Interactive.

This was not always the case, however. When President Ryan Miller began the company 10 years ago, he ran it entirely from his home. Because of space limitations, nearly all of his employees worked from home as well — an arrangement that came to an end five years ago.

“As we became larger in size with more team members, and as the complexity of our product offering evolved, it became harder and harder to work effectively with a remotely distributed team,” Miller said.

Miller considers the company’s offsite work policy, paired with a progressive time-off system, as a more feasible alternative to telecommuting.

He also sees bona fide telecommuting on the downswing. He views its expansion as a product of the rich startup culture of the 1990s. Companies used it to mitigate shortages in office space due to rapid growth, and as a means to lure new talent from a limited pool of qualified workers.

With the economic downturn, he believes that employers are in a better position to establish work arrangements that better suit their own needs.

“Managing a remote workforce presents a myriad of challenges,” Miller said. “Marissa Mayer is right that having employees in the office integrates staff with company culture, engenders collaboration and supports spontaneous innovation.”

Sizing up conditions

Companies that offer telecommuting counter that it is possible to foster successful telecommuting relationships, given the right conditions. For one thing, it takes a certain breed of employee to work in an environment with limited oversight. Nearly all remote employees at IQMS are high-level professionals. Many of the Cisco employees who telecommute are at the individual contributor level, but all are carefully selected and managed.

“It takes a certain level of discipline, and a company that makes clear its expectations,” Tillman said. “We have a high-performance culture, and if someone’s not pulling their weight, it’s addressed.”

McDonald has forged a level of trust with Maggie Cox and Vice President/COO Dave Cox over the course of more than 10 years, which has included a three-year stint as a full-time, on-site employee.

“It works great, I think, because we’ve worked together for years, we know and trust her, she gets the work done and does it beautifully, and because we both give and take as needed,” Maggie Cox said.

Most companies require some amount of on-site work, but not all. Some IQMS employees come into corporate headquarters just once or twice a year. Some Cisco telecommuters never set foot in an office.

Tech keeps them connected

So how does a company promote effective collaboration and teamwork with so little face time?

Steady and efficient communication is one key factor. Not coincidentally, many companies that offer telecommuting are technology firms, and some use their own products to stay connected. Tillman’s office is outfitted with ultra-high-speed DSL, as well as equipment such as Cisco TelePresence, a high-definition video conferencing system. The IQMS team uses its own customer relationship management software to enter client data so that up-to-date information is accessible by multiple team members. They also stay in nearly constant contact via email and cellphone.

“Every team that has remote employees has phone or Web conferences at least weekly,” said Alflen, who also puts a premium on structured assignments and regular reporting for remote team members.

Tillman believes it’s actually her time away from the office that fosters more effective collaboration when she does work on site.

“Not being in the office every day means I have a bit of space or perspective that you tend to lose when you’re caught up in the daily swirl,” she said. “Especially if we’re working on something complex, I come in for the last 30 percent of the process and can offer a much fresher perspective.”

Lines get blurred

As for Mayer’s belief that speed and quality are scarified when workers telecommute, many telecommuters believe the opposite is true. They point to increased productivity when spared the time-drain of long commutes and the distractions of an office environment. The flip side, however, is that work more easily encroaches on personal time. Tillman, for instance, may be available to tuck her daughter into bed most evenings. But she also can — and often does — return to her office to video conference with her Asia team late into the night.

For McDonald, working extra hours and beyond the typical 8-to-5 schedule is more a plus than a downside.

“I really enjoy writing, and once I get inspired, I like to keep rolling with it,” she said. “So if I need to keep writing into the evening hours, it’s no big deal for me.”

Tillman believes that this melding of work and personal lives is a new reality for most people, whether they telecommute or not. Smart phones, tablets, and other technologies mean few people leave their work behind when they exit their office doors. It’s why she believes some form of telecommuting will always be commonplace.

“The way we work now is different than the traditional way,” she said. “The flexibility companies give their employees by allowing them to work at home is simply acknowledging that.”