Consumer Corner: Have computer will travel -- telecommuting instead of commuting

By MARCELLA S. KREITER  |  Sept. 25, 2011 at 4:31 AM
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CHICAGO, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- The wind is blowing, the snow is falling and a suicide-by-train has suspended service along the commuter rail line or a chain-reaction accident has blocked all lanes on the main road leading into downtown, turning an hour-long commute into a 3-hour nightmare.

Who wouldn't prefer a jog down the hallway to the living room and flipping open the laptop to get to work?

Have computer and modem, will travel.

An estimated 45 million Americans work from home at least once a year and that number is expected to grow to 63 million by 2016, Forrester Research said. Some 2.8 million people -- not including the self-employed -- consider home their primary workplace, reported.

Forrester found it costs $4,000 for a company to set up an employee to telecommute and $2,500 annually to maintain the setup -- far less than office space and the attendant costs.

UPI started sending the vast majority of its employees home years ago, starting the practice even before personal computers and modems were routine consumer items. Now, with smartphones and all the other gadgets and easily made Internet connections available, such a decision is a no-brainer.

A recent CareerBuilder survey found mixed results on whether telecommuting benefits or interferes with productivity.

"The amount of hours worked is only one factor affecting productivity," said Ryan Hunt, CareerBuilder career adviser. "Undistracted and low-stress workers will generally be able to produce more in less time."

The CareerBuilder survey found 10 percent of workers telecommute at least once a week, with 17 percent of those working from home some of the time saying they spend an hour or less actually working while 35 percent say they work 8 hours or more.

Thirty-seven percent of the nearly 5,300 employees surveyed May 19-June 8 said they are more productive at the office while 29 percent said they get more done at home and 34 percent said there's no difference.

Among the things that interfere with at-home productivity are household chores (31 percent), television (26 percent), pets (23 percent), errands (19 percent), Internet (18 percent) and children (15 percent).

"Employers should evaluate telecommuters based on the quality of their work first and foremost; however, if it's clear employees aren't putting in the time needed to meet or surpass expectations, companies will inevitably adjust policies to best meet their needs," Hunt said.

"Although the study showed that most telecommuters are putting in fewer than 8 hours a day, that only tells part of the story -- 63 percent still think they're either more productive at home or don't see a difference in productivity levels between home and the office."

Of course, there are tricks to staying focused.

Don't work in your jammies all day, advised Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, which had more than 500 telecommuting jobs listed on its Web site last week. Get up, get dressed and pretend you're going to the office.

One thing a commute does is allow the employee to get in the right frame of mind to work, Haefner said. So developing a transition routine on work-at-home days would accomplish the same thing.

Staying in touch with colleagues is another way to stay motivated and on task -- whether it's by e-mail or phone. Go to a nearby coffee shop or library if it's too quiet at home and you need the noise of other people around to focus your concentration, she said.

Plan your breaks to avoid feeling like a prisoner at home. And go ahead. Pet the cat.

Of course, working from home means the work is always there and available, making it tempting to put in a lot more time than you would if you had to physically leave the office.

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