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Telecommuting may lead to frustration

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As mergers, corporate downsizing and family-care issues become more prevalent in today’s business world, a growing number of workers are opting to telecommute or establish their own home-based businesses. Indeed, the trend has become so pervasive that today one in every eight U.S. households has at least one adult working full-time from home.

Futurists say they expect that number to climb to one in every five households by 2002, thanks to a tight labor market and affordable technology.

Moreover, experts say these arrangements are being facilitated by the increase in two-income households as well as companies’ propensity to transfer executives to different geographic locations.

By choosing home-based entrepreneurship or telecommuting, a spouse can relocate with a husband or wife on the corporate fast-track without much disruption to his or her own professional life.

Undeniably, the flexibility is a blessing for many families. But is working from home a prudent choice for everyone? From personal experience — as well as advice from management experts — there are several factors to consider in weighing such an arrangement.

While most emphasis focuses on the initial capital it takes to set up a home office, computer hardware is just one of many issues with which to wrestle. Desktop computers, modems, fax machines, voice mail, e-mail — all of the technological amenities of modern business — have made it relatively easy for a spare room to be transformed into an office.

But what about the managerial and motivational issues that accompany a work-from-home arrangement? In reality, these are the factors that distinguish a rewarding home-based work environment from a frustrating one.

Several questions should be assessed in contemplating a work-home set-up. Some of the most critical include:

An understanding of competitive issues

Too often, managers go out on their own without an understanding of the marketability of their professional skills in terms of competitive demand and compensation. Whether you’re providing consulting, accounting or computer services, have you researched market needs thoroughly? Do you have an established niche or reputation that would enable you to transfer your skills beyond your immediate regional area? Do you know what the market will bear from a competitive pricing standpoint and can you realize appropriate profits given that environment?

For telecommuters, internal competitive issues should be assessed. For example, will you miss promotional opportunities because of a lack of “face time” with the boss? How will you make your supervisors aware of your accomplishments? Will your company allow you to participate in continuing education and professional development opportunities as a telecommuter? These are all important considerations for employees contemplating a career move into the home.

An understanding of the

cost of doing business

Beyond initial start-up expenses, home-based entrepreneurs often fail to anticipate ongoing costs of doing business. Additionally, some attempt to grow too quickly without an adequate understanding of time-talent constraints. Moreover, many neglect to plan for and contribute to retirement plans as entrepreneurs. Telecommuters should have a clear understanding of whether or not their employers will underwrite ongoing operating expenses and computer upgrades beyond initial start-up costs. One national study on telecommuting recently showed that employees are footing the majority of bills associated with home office set-ups, leaving some to ask, “Are employees truly benefiting from telecommuting arrangements?”

An understanding of

self-discipline and motivation

The reality of any workplace situation is that some employees are more proactive than others. Home-based entrepreneurs should be prepared to handle “grunt-work” responsibilities beyond the creative aspects of doing their jobs.

Moreover, home-based workers and telecommuters must be disciplined in meeting responsibilities and deadlines while planning for future development opportunities, budgeting and financial analysis of monthly or quarterly results.

Working from home probably isn’t advisable for workers who are easily distracted.

An understanding of changed social/work aspects

For the most part, telecommuters and home-based workers are tied to their professional counterparts via technology rather than daily face-to-face interaction. On occasion, this can be isolating and subsequently unrewarding for some individuals who thrive on being part of an office team. On the other hand, some telecommuters say working from home alleviates politics and inter-office sniping from their day-to-day work responsibilities, enabling them to be more productive — and happier — on the job. While personality types differ, this is an important aspect for any home-worker to consider.

An ability to distinguish work time from family time

While a home office allows for a great deal of flexibility, it can also wreak havoc with work/family boundaries. On some occasions, telecommuters say it’s easy to fall into a “work-all-the-time” mentality. Home-based workers should be prepared to set parameters so that neither work nor family suffers in the process.

Financial writer and consultant Karen Kahler Holliday balances work and family from her home office in Tupelo. In addition to writing this column and a monthly banking column for the Mississippi Business Journal, she is senior contributing editor for U.S. Banker magazine.

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