The Telecommuting Tribe | Working Mother

The Telecommuting Tribe

A new Working Mother Research Institute survey finds that telecommuting is thriving nationwide. Here, the Best Companies—and their work-from-home moms—reveal why.

working in the home office

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home, working parents were outraged. Why? Because telecommuting can work very well, thank you.

Photo: Gallery Stock

“Wait, you have a nanny?”

That’s what people ask when they find out that Jessica Milesko—mom of Summer, 4, Oliver, 3, and Clara, 18 months—has a caregiver watching her kids while she works from home.

It’s the surprise in their voices that always gets her.

“I think, Really? You’re asking that?” says the director of performance management for consultancy A.T. Kearney, one of the working mother 100 Best Companies for 2013. “How could I possibly get work done otherwise?” In fact, Jessica has a full-time nanny and a dedicated office in her Madison, WI, home, where she’s worked full-time for the past four years.

She regularly collaborates with co-workers on video calls and travels quarterly on business—and in July, she was promoted.

Jessica’s story debunks quite a few telecommuting myths: that it’s a career dead end, or a refuge for parents trying to scrimp on child care; that workers who use it don’t produce or innovate like their in-office peers.

“Working from home is really what allows me to have three kids under age 5 and a full-time job,” she says. “During the day, I’m in my office and they’re in ‘school.’” (Based on advice from fellow telecommuting moms at A.T. Kearney, Jessica set up the kids’ playroom like a Montessori classroom, and her caregiver works off a lesson plan.) “Because I don’t commute, I can be in at 8:01 a.m.and done by 4:59 p.m.”

And yet, although an estimated 20 million to 30 million Americans work from home at least one day a week, telecommuting remains one of the most “culturally misunderstood” workplace practices, says Ellen Ernst Kossek, PhD, professor of management at Purdue University.

So it’s not surprising that when Yahoo CEO and new mom Marissa Mayer eliminated working from home earlier this year for her 11,000 employees, the decision sparked fierce debate: Were teleworkers as engaged and productive as their in-office peers? Could a company be innovative yet still provide this important flexibility? Who is working from home, how much, and why?

To study the issue, Working Mother surveyed more than 1,500 employed moms nationwide to gain a clearer picture of working from home—from how it works to its impact on work. We even asked what telecommuters wear. (Hint: It’s not pajamas.)

We also talked to moms at this year’s Best Companies to learn their best practices for getting their jobs done at home. We found that although work-from-home may not work for Yahoo (right now), it is absolutely working for employees and their employers nationwide.

Engaged and at Home

For Monica Ward, it started as a concession to a nightmare commute. Her drive from her home on the Indiana border to suburban Chicago takes the mom of Haley, 12, and Jordyn, 5, more than three hours round-trip. Driving it five days a week cost the Kraft Foods Group human resources manager 60 hours and $700 on gas each month.

“I loved my job, but I was really struggling,” she recalls. So she and her manager drafted a new schedule—three days in the office, two at home. The arrangement, says Monica, has made her a stronger, more strategic contributor. “I plan ahead constantly,” she says. “I separate my tasks. I think about when I want to provide input in person or collaborate with someone, and when it works better to drill in, get quiet and really concentrate.”

Earlier this year, for instance, Monica struggled to develop a new strategy for managing the company’s union benefit plans. Amid meetings and office interruptions, her ideas weren’t coalescing. So she blocked out several consecutive days to work from home. “My creative juices were flowing, and content just came to me. I worked on it nonstop for many hours across multiple days,” she says. Her strategy has since been implemented. “This was absolutely an ‘aha moment’ for me while working remotely, and I attribute the productivity to the fact that I had the opportunity to concentrate with minimal disruptions.”

But are most workers really so productive at home? Studies say yes—and best companies agree. In a remote-work pilot program, for instance, PNC Financial Services group found its home-based employee resource staff completed more cases per month than their office peers—and reported better work life balance. At Cisco Systems, flexible workers are 18 percent more likely to be high performers, says human resources director Jennifer Dudeck, mom of James, 10, and Henry, 8, who works from home in North Carolina and supervises seven people based in other cities.

Working moms agree: eighty percent of the respondents in our survey said that flexibility in when and/or where they work had a positive or very positive effect on their productivity.

Mo Carranza, a senior information systems analyst with Takeda, is another member of the major-commute club (300 miles round-trip to the pharmaceutical company’s Chicago-area offices). Beyond getting decent sleep on home days, she says periods of solo concentration enhance her performance. “I’m more creative when i’m working from home,” she says. “I don’t get pulled into the ‘Yep, what she/he said is what I think, too’ mentality that can happen in some groups.” During a recent home day, for example, the mom of Fernando II, 15, Ross, 13, Alex, 10, and Abby, 9, ferreted out a tough technical problem with the company’s compensation system.

Says Mo, “I was able to sit down and research the issue without distractions until I could uncover the root cause.”

Staying Visible

Both Monica and Mo have work-from-home balance—a split between days in the office and at home. In our survey, we found that 19 percent of respondents who work from home have similar setups, telecommuting at least one day per month and not more than four days per week. It’s a model that Dr. Kossek says is ideal because it keeps workers tied into the office culture.

But not all teleworkers have this luxury. Increasingly, work teams are geographically dispersed at companies large and small. About half of Cisco employees, for example, work at different locations from their managers, and 40 percent work outside the United States. If you’re not regularly scheduled to be in the office, you have to work hard to find other ways to make connections, say moms who telecommute.

Cisco employee Anne-Marie Azzi manages to be a full-time teleworker and a familiar face in the technology company’s New York city office. To combat the isolation of being at home full-time in Chester Springs, PA, the market intelligence group manager aims for at least one business lunch in the city each month. On those days, she plunks down at an open office desk and works the rest of the day there. “You have to be proactive about keeping in touch,” she says. “Otherwise you get disconnected from that next layer up” of management. She also serves as co-president of Conexion, the company’s Latino employee resource organization, which means she interacts with a wide variety of co-workers and outside contacts.

Jessica and her far-flung team (spread from Chicago to Milan) also put their webcams to use. “People tend to be more engaged when you’re looking at them,” she says. “it’s easy to get distracted by email or other things if you’re just talking on the phone.” To build rapport, she and her team have shared virtual tours of their offices, chuckling over the co-worker who spiffed up for the occasion by throwing a suit jacket over his T-shirt.

The fun stuff is very important, says Mo. “It strengthens bonds with my co-workers, especially ones i don’t get to see on a day-to-day basis.” To that end, Mo has rearranged her schedule to participate with colleagues in a company photo contest, a 5K charity run/walk and the department’s volunteer session at a local food pantry. Twice a month, she joins her department at a team lunch. This year, Mo received her department’s first Stars Award, which recognizes (among other things) collaboration.

Advancement Aware

Stay visible—and be vocal, too. One of the persistent stigmas of remote work is that it kills advancement chances. In a Korn/Ferry international global survey of more than 1,300 executives, 61 percent said they believed telecommuting limited career prospects.

Jessica regularly logs her contributions into a Word document. “I am diligent about tracking and sharing with leadership what I’m working on,” she says. “This is especially helpful for ad hoc requests and other ‘special’ projects which tend to be forgotten. I also send leadership a weekly status report with major milestones, open questions and a red/yellow/green progress status.”

As a result, Jessica is confident about her contributions and prepared to discuss her work with higher-ups. Ultimately, tracking her accomplishments helped her win a recent promotion. (Respondents to Working Mother’s flex survey have reason to believe that telecommuting won’t keep them from climbing career ladders at their companies: Half of them say that their own direct managers either always or often work from home offices.)

Monica keeps her manager apprised of her work at a standing weekly appointment. She’ll occasionally ask to present key projects at department meetings so she can reach a wider audience. Indeed, Monica believes telework may ultimately facilitate her advancement opportunities: She’s pursuing an MBA using Kraft’s tuition reimbursement program. That would have been impossible when her commute was gobbling up so many hours.

Ground Rules

Telecommuting is an art, say moms who do it. It requires certain boundaries. For years, Anne-Marie’s boys went to an afterschool program. (Our survey found kids are mostly elsewhere when mom’s working—68 percent said their children are at school, with a sitter or at day care.) But now that they’re old enough to come straight home on the school bus—Tony is 13 and Alex is 10—Anne-Marie has set a few new standards, including: If her office door is closed, it means she can’t be disturbed. (She might be on a video call—part of working on a team spread across two continents is that someone’s dog will inevitably stroll across the shot.)

Anne-Marie has made a conscious effort to be active. After a long conference call, she’ll run her basement stairs a few times. The brief burst of exercise clears her head and loosens up her joints. “The exercise really helps, and it’s not something I can do in the office,” she jokes. “They frown on running around like crazy.” (Exercise is a big gain for telecommuters—26 percent of women we surveyed work out when they work from home, versus only 14 percent who are in the office.)

Exercise isn’t the only healthier habit home workers adopt. Rather than grab fast food, for example, Anne-Marie will scramble herself eggs for lunch, or use a break in her day to start dinner. In fact, food prep is one of the most popular uses of salvaged time—44 percent of women we surveyed swapped commute time for cook time. When companies tally up the cost savings of flexible work arrangements—office space, fuel costs, time, reduced worker turnover—perhaps health care savings deserve a line item, too?

Here, There, Everywhere

No matter what the future holds for Yahoo, remote work is inescapable for workers and their employers across the country, and the world. In fact, many of this year’s best companies are global enterprises whose workforce can’t be brought under one physical roof. Nor do many people think of work as a strictly face-to-face operation anymore—plenty is accomplished even within offices via email and instant messaging.

Jennifer Dudeck recalls feeling like a pioneer a decade ago when she began working from home. The practice was “on the fringes, a grassroots movement at Cisco.” Now, fully 90 percent of Cisco’s workers put in some hours at home at least one day per week—and flexibility has become a company bedrock, says Jennifer. “Our culture is to care more about the quality of work people do, and less about where and when they do it.”

Work-from-Home Tips

  • Have a dedicated office with a door that closes.
  • Cultivate an IT contact so there’s someone to call when the scanner or videoconference link doesn’t work.
  • Participate in office networking and social opportunities.
  • Set clear standards for when you’re available to work and to family.
  • Revisit your telecommuting arrangement annually.
  • Be front-of-mind even when you’re not actually in front of your manager.