Telecommuting is clearly rising in importance. More and more companies are offering their employees the option to work outside the office. And more and more employees are deciding to take advantage of this way of working so that they can reconcile their professional lives with their personal lives, reduce stress, avoid traffic jams and gain greater flexibility during the workday.

Although English-speaking countries were the first to take this approach, telecommuting has become a common practice in every part of the world. “In the U.S. alone, more than 25% of the population uses telecommuting as its only way of working,” says Nuria Chinchilla, professor at the IESE Business School in Spain. According to the job portal, 35% of 8,000 Europeans who responded to a survey said that they work from home. In Spain, the numbers are a somewhat lower — 26%, according to surveys. Indeed, Spain has one of the lowest rates of telecommuting in all of Europe, exceeding only the rates in Italy, 19%, and France, 20%.

The Monster survey showed also that 57% of Spaniards wanted their company to offer them this option, while only 36% of all European employees who do not have the opportunity to work at home wanted to do so.

Despite all the advantages offered by telecommuting, however, this way of working could become a handicap for work careers. At least, that is the viewpoint of six out of every ten professionals who participated in a study by Futurestep, the recruitment subsidiary of Korn Ferry International. The report, published this year, surveyed 1,320 professionals in 71 countries.  Nevertheless, 78% of the people in that survey said that telecommuters are either as productive, or even more productive, than the rest of employees.

Combining Work with a Physical Presence

Much has been said about the virtues of telecommuting both for the employee and the employer. This way of working enables workers to avoid geographical barriers and schedules that require their presence in the office. Telecommuting has also enabled companies to overcome physical barriers, improve their hiring capabilities, increase productivity and reduce their costs.

Not everything about telecommuting is ideal, however. Among other problems, companies have to make large initial payments for the equipment that their telecommuters need. There is also the issue of insecurity about communicating with employees, as well as the difficulty of controlling and supervising their work. In addition, each employee has to be careful not to become a workaholic. Beyond that, “telecommuting has become synonymous with social isolation,” notes Diego Vicente, a professor at IE in Spain. Finally and above all, the study shows that employees need to be very careful about the way their professional career develops after they begin to adopt this way of working, either full-time or part time.

The Voice of Experience

For some telecommuters, these issues aren’t really problems, given the fact that this way of working enables them to make the most out of their profession. For example, Ellen Ferrara, director of corporate relations at BT Global Services, lives in the United Kingdom where she has been working from home for the past five months, the same period during which she rose to her current position. Recently Ferrara told Expansion & Empleo, a Spanish publication, that her workday is now more flexible and she can focus more on her work. Nevertheless, she recognizes that her personal relationships in the workplace have suffered. As a result, she says, “before opting for long-distance work, it is advisable to work in the office. In fact, BT requires its workers to spend at least one year in the corporate office before they qualify for working long distance.”

Edouard Castellant, who heads Nortel in France, agrees. “If professionals want to be promoted, spending five days of the week outside the office is not the most appropriate road to take.” Combining telecommuting with a physical presence is the approach recommended by Daniel Catafal, senior project manager at Telefonica de Espana. For more than three years, Catafal has done 40% of his work outside the office. Catafal agrees that telecommuting involves a certain amount of loneliness and the loss of networking capability. But “orientation to goals and projects is a lot more important than my presence at the physical installations of Telefonica,” he says.

Training toward Goals

Chincilla agrees with Catafal about the importance of achieving goals for professionals. “In those companies where a physical presence counts more than actual results, it is clear that people are losing their chances for promotion. Their commitment is valued only to the extent that they spend as many hours in the office as their boss does,” she warns. However, in many first-rate companies, she adds, “what counts nowadays is the results you achieve, and the way goals are achieved.” In this kind of company, “telecommuting plays an important part in improving a professional career because the flexibility it gives you enables you to work from your home at any hour of the day, and that improves the results.”

In Chinchilla’s view, however, most companies are not yet ready to adequately value those professionals whom they cannot see. “There is an entire area of training that has to be strengthened, which is education about management by goals. You have to know how to set your goals and how to quantify and evaluate them.”

There are some companies that are not prepared for this new reality. What they need, says Chinchilla, “is a cultural change, which means no longer placing value on physical presence and moving toward evaluating results. To achieve this, middle managers need a great deal of education, especially because middle managers are the ones who have to evaluate personnel when it comes to promotions.”

Diego Vicente agrees with Chinchilla. Beyond the issue of education, he also recommends heading departments with people who are convinced of this work strategy — people who see telecommuting as a work option. For Vicente, “companies are making small moves to adjust themselves to the personal needs of each work, and it’s not just because they want to make people feel satisfied.

He notes that IBM International not only provides a sabbatical year but also develops the culture of telecommuting. “In Banesto bank,” he notes, “some employees, instead of having an eight-hour workday, work six hours [at home] and manage for the other two hours.” Twenty-five percent of the 10,000 people who currently work in Telefonica’s new headquarters in Madrid spend 40% of their workday outside their office desk.

Both Chinchilla and Diego recognize that the speed at which workers are moving into telecommuting is outpacing the ability of companies to adapt to this new situation. According to data from Spain’s “Guide to Flexible and Responsible Good Practices,” which Chinchilla co-authored, in 1999 only 13% of all Spanish companies had some workers who were telecommuting.  Last year, in contrast, 50% of all Spanish companies had some such employees. Nevertheless, “there has been little training of middle managers,” he says. For Diego, teaching managerial skills “is rising significantly in importance but it seems that the average company is worried now about training people to work in a team and teaching them how to communicate. I see little training for people who manage the area of telecommuting.”

Chinchilla has written a book entitled, Masters of Our Destiny: How to Reconcile your Professional Life with your Family and Personal Life. Chinchilla recommends middle managers who manage by goals to make follow-up assessments of results, supported by points of control. Employers should ask middle managers to guarantee that their jobs are measured by how well they achieve their goals, not by the number of hours they work. “These people need help when it comes to better managing their time, agenda and stress…. Having been hired to focus on results, they can make progress in their careers.” The key, she says, “is to know yourself better so that you can have a more harmonious life, so that you can harmonize yourself with your company and your job. Working at home is one way to do that.”

The Problem: Training Yourself by Yourself

The big problem for a telecommuter, Chinchilla notes, is that “often, he or she is not being managed by anyone; he is very autonomous and has to be, but you have to help him educate himself as an autonomous worker so that he manages his time and his agenda well, so that you can properly manage the relationship between each boss and each employee, and so that both of them can assess their work. Otherwise, he can easily fall victim to bad habits, whether they are problems of excess or errors. For example, he could become addicted to his work, and to being connected to the Internet, which doesn’t help. Or he could be the sort of person who is unable to manage time, and unable to carry out work projects.”

On the other hand, it is critical that when a telecommuter attends office meetings where projects are assessed and managed, he must do that in the most professional possible manner and make maximum use of his time.  That way, “promotions will not be a problem.”

Ian Sullivan, product manager at Sun Microsystems, says that he has not seen any signs that his career has been slowed down.  He has spent four years working in offices and another four working long distance. He recognizes that “bosses and corporations have to feel that promotions are compatible with telecommuting. Nevertheless, I believe that it is important and healthy to combine long-distance activities with activities that take place in the office.”