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Phoning it in

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — If there’s one thing an employer hates, it’s employees whose main goal seems to be “face time.” But some workers do their jobs effectively without their employers ever seeing their face.

“I usually see my manager about once a year. However, we’re in constant communication every day,” said Maria Niederhofer, a manager in IBM’s Global Services Division.

A Niwot resident, Niederhofer is one of the nearly 30 million people who call themselves “teleworkers” — or telecommuters, as they’re more commonly known — that segment of the workforce that does their work in the comfort of home.

What about something as basic as performance reviews? How does her boss keep tabs on her work?

“We just handle them like we do normally, but instead of face-to-face, we just do it over the phone,” Niederhofer said. “It’s a new world — it’s just the way we do business now.”

Niederhofer had been working for IBM in New York until transferring to Colorado to take a job at the company’s Gunbarrel facility. For the first couple of years, she worked out of an office inside the building. But then, when the company introduced a formal work-at-home program, she jumped at the chance.

“People in certain pockets could now move their office into their home,” Niederhofer said. That was in 1996, and she had a very young daughter at the time.

“It made sense to me. ... I could sort of balance those work/life issues,” she said. “It was really up to the management team to decide if this would work or not.”

They decided it would, and Niederhofer’s been performing out of her home office ever since. According to the International Telework Association and Council, 21.7 percent of the people who telework in this country work exclusively from home.

In the United States, according to ITAC, 28 million people teleworked in 2001, up from 19.6 million in 1999. Since 1985, the number of Americans teleworking has increased more than 300 percent.

Most work from home only one or two days a week, such as Sharon Lafferty, a computer programmer and analyst with the city of Longmont.

“As a programmer, I don’t need to be face-to-face with my customer,” Lafferty said. In her case, her “customers” are other city departments, for whom she writes internal software and analyzes data. To do her work from her home in Berthoud, she simply downloads what she needs from the office onto a Zip file, takes it home, opens the file on her home computer and does her work.

Lafferty was one of 14 city employees who participated in a recent six-month teleworking trial program. It was such a success, Longmont is looking at expanding the program, according to Ann Everhart, the city’s human resources director.

She said when she joined the city in 1999, she already was familiar with teleworking from her former job, and the city already had an established teleworking committee. The key, Everhart said, was getting people on the job actually doing it. “This has been a multi-year process,” she said.

The city found employees from every department to participate; and to judge the success of the program, they surveyed them and their supervisors once a month. At the end of the trial period, they even asked the employees’ peers what they thought of the program.

“The overwhelming majority ... said, ‘Yeah, we think this is a good thing,’” said Everhart. One city employee who lives in Lakewood teleworked only one day a week but saved two hours of commute time and 100 miles worth of gas a week.

“There’s no traveling, so instead of driving here 20 or 30 minutes every day, I spend that time working,” said Lafferty. And she added, there are no interruptions. “It’s more relaxed, I’m more focused. I just get a lot more done.”

IBM’s teleworkers are different from the city’s in that they can securely connect to the company’s intranet from home, meaning no files ever need to be moved around physically.

Sandy Smith, the Gunbarrel site’s human resources manager, said about 40 percent of the 1,000 or so employees at IBM telework on at least a part-time basis — enough that her company even has semantics to address its different types of teleworkers.

“Working at home means I don’t have an office here at IBM,” Smith said. “Whereas telecommuting, I might work at home two days a week.”

IBM’s intranet has a function called “Sametime,” which performs essentially the same function as AOL’s “Instant Messenger.” If one employee needs to talk to another, she “Sametimes” that person — the electronic equivalent of getting up and walking over to someone’s cubicle.

“Everyone’s on Sametime,” said Niederhofer, whose “team members” are spread across the country. “So there’s never an issue of needing to get hold of someone.”

Another part of Niederhofer’s job description is project management, in which she frequently heads up large team efforts involving IBM employees both in the United States and abroad.

“In terms of working from home, it’s irrelevant whether I’m having these large conference calls from inside an office at IBM or from home,” she said.

Niederhofer said IBM pays for her in-home high-speed Internet connection and has installed a telephone line she uses for business.

“The only hitch to that is, as long as I have the cable connection and the phone connection ... without that I’m really dead in the water,” said Niederhofer, whose home lost power for a time during the recent blizzard.

Thank goodness for cell phones.

Other benefits?

Niederhofer also saves money by not having to spend nearly as much on a wardrobe as other people in her position, and she spends less on gas and car insurance than she would if she were driving into work every day. But teleworking is far from a financial boon to an employee.

“Obviously, because I’m here all the time, I’m using my utilities and I’m not reimbursed for that,” said Niederhofer. “And this room in my house that is carved out for an office — it can’t be used for anything else. So there is a trade-off on both sides.”

Still, Niederhofer said she wouldn’t trade working at home for anything. For one thing, there are the views. “I picked the best room in my house for my office,” she said. “I set it up so I could be in the most comfortable situation.

“My dog and my cat hang out in my house with me every day.”

But Niederhofer said it’s that work/life balance — specifically in the form of her daughter, now in eighth grade — that makes teleworking so rewarding.

“I feel good about the fact that I’m here when she leaves for school in the morning and I’m here when she comes home in the afternoon,” said Niederhofer. “It works for me and I
really think it works for her as well.”

The city of Longmont doesn’t yet have the technology to have teleworkers hook up to the city’s internal system from their homes, and Everhart said that “connectivity” will be the next step in getting teleworking to be widespread among city workers.

“IBM — they’re kind of where we want to be someday,” said Everhart. “But this was a good start for us.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.