It wasnt easy for Megan OGorden to break the news to her boss. She was planning to marry in a few months, which meant she would be moving to Chicago with her husband and, she regretted, resigning her position at Fitting Kohlbrener.
OGordens plan wasnt easy for Andrea Fitting, one of two name partners in the firm, to accept.
We were just cooking along, doing fine, says Fitting, describing the marketing communication firms progress before she got word OGorden would be leaving.
Fitting and partner Mike Kohlbrener knew it wouldnt be easy to replace OGorden, a key member of the team for two years as a communications specialist with the eight-employee firm. Fitting Kohlbreners strength, much of it residing in highly skilled employees like OGorden, has helped it land and retain clients from Boston to Arizona.
In fact, for the past three years or so, the agency has been attempting to build its business with such clients rather than limiting its reach to local companies in the high-tech, health care and professional services fields.
OGorden worked with a number of high-tech and health care clients, and the knowledge she had gained would be hard to replace, Fitting reasoned. The company would have to launch a recruitment campaign and expect a period of adjustment for the new employee as well as the clients and the other team members they would work with. And there was always the risk that the person hired might not fit the bill.
OGorden faced considerable upheaval, too. She would soon be a newlywed, moving to a strange city and seeking out a new employer. The changes promised no minor level of stress and adjustment.
Loathing the loss of a good employee and recognizing an opportunity to gain a foothold in a major market that is home to myriad trade associations the agency does business with, Fitting mulled over offering OGorden the opportunity to telecommute. OGorden, eager to stay with a job she felt comfortable in, jumped at the offer.
Andrea has been a mentor for me, and we have a fantastic working relationship, says OGorden. I believe in the philosophy that the agency follows.
Fitting Kohlbrener isnt alone. Telecommuting is fast becoming the rule rather than the exception, according to a study by FIND/SVP, a New York-based research and consulting firm. The study indicates there is a strong upward trend toward telecommuting nationally, with 11 million working at home a number that is growing about 15 percent a year.
Growth of e-mail, voice mail and the Internet, combined with a renewed emphasis on work results rather than workplace appearances, have encouraged managers to recognize that employees working part-time down the road are no more distant than employees working down the hall, says Thomas Miller, vice president of FIND/SVP. What matters most is whether or not the job is getting done.
What do we tell the clients?
The issue that most concerned Fitting was whether clients would balk at the arrangement. While some were skeptical at the outset, all decided to give it a try.
What it will come down to is results, says Gene Nacey, president and CEO of Tele-Tracking Technology, one Fitting Kohlbrener client OGorden works with. Nacey says he didnt bat an eye when he found that OGorden would be working from Chicago.
Fitting Kohlbrener outfitted her with a computer, fax, modem and Internet connection, and by the time she arrived in Chicago in March, she was on the job.
So far, so good
OGorden says shes more productive because shes able to avoid interruptions and structure her time to suit her schedule.
She did, however, have to spend a few sessions with the agencys system administrator to learn how to use the computer and its peripherals.
I think its worked out, says OGorden of the transition from in-house employee to long-distance telecommuter. I think its been pretty seamless.
Most of the wrinkles have been technological, and primarily arising out of problems with Fitting Kohlbreners Internet service provider. Theyve had to adjust to transmitting PDF files by e-mail.
Thats been a challenge, says Fitting, adding that the company needed to purchase new software for the task.
What to do
The experience of Fitting Kohlbrener and its first telecommuting employee reveals some points that should be considered by any employer thinking about a telecommuting arrangement:
- Be up front about the arrangement with your clients. Initially, OGorden reveals, some of the agencys clients had reservations, but the agency was able to allay those concerns. The trust the agency had built into its relationship with clients likely would have suffered if they discovered only after the fact that OGorden was working outside of Pittsburgh.
In fact, the arrangement likely will raise few concerns among your clients. Many, like Nacey, who gets about 50 e-mail messages a day, will feel comfortable with and may even prefer handling their correspondence via telecommunications. Nacey says that rather than having to deal with frequent telephone interruptions, he now can send a concise e-mail message when its convenient and save time.
- Communicate often. OGorden says she tends to err on the side of communicating more rather than less. She participates in regular teleconferencing calls with the Fitting Kohlbrener staff, and the agency is considering a schedule of periodic visits by OGorden to Pittsburgh.
- Arrange for technical support. While OGorden says anyone with basic computer and telecommunications literacy should be able to handle most issues that come up, it helps if an employee at a remote location has access to a systems administrator or help desk in case technological glitches arise.
- Its not for everyone. OGorden says that, while the solitary nature of working at home doesnt make her feel isolated, she can understand that some employees might find it distressing to be alone for extended periods without face-to-face interaction with clients or co-workers.
- Carefully evaluate costs. Fitting estimates that supporting OGordens employment in Chicago costs about 20 percent more than it would had she maintained her office in Pittsburgh. However, productivity gains, she says, might very well offset the additional costs. And Fitting Kohlbrener has avoided the cost of hiring a replacement, who would face a time-consuming learning curve.
Moreover, OGorden has access to resources and potential leads for the agency in Chicago that would otherwise go untapped. But as Fitting is quick to note, business development is not central to the plan.
We didnt send her to Chicago to drum up new business, Fitting says.
With the technological capabilities available and the opportunity to hold onto an employee who might otherwise leave the company, given the right circumstances, having a telecommuting employee might be a viable option for an employer.
While Fitting says its too early to make a final judgment of the arrangements success, the experience to date, she says, has been positive. Says Fitting: Weve had our bumps, but so far, so good.