Telecommuting is getting a lot of press these days. Once a futuristic projection, it’s now a reality. Both technical and non-technical staffers welcome it. It’s part of the new world of work projected by futurist Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970) and management consultants William Bridges in Jobshift (1994) and Tom Peters in The Brand You 50 (1999).

But projections aside, telecommuting is not for every company or employee. It takes an enormous amount of organization and resourcefulness to telecommute in an efficient manner. Beyond the day-to-day difficulties of working out of the office, many go-getters may find that being away from the company on a regular basis can hinder their career goals, as they are regularly looked over for promotions.

To help you determine whether this new employment paradigm is right for you or your company, we’ll examine both the benefits of working outside of the office and the problems with telecommuting.

Why working from home works
Simply, telecommuting means working from a remote location. Five years ago, the remote location was your home. Today, it can be virtually anywhere: a plane, train, a customer’s or vendor’s office, even from a bar—if you can pull it off.

Statistics supporting the telemarketing trend are impressive. Approximately 6 percent of employed adults (about 8.2 million people) telecommute regularly.

By the year 2005, the number of telecommuters is expected to jump to more than 18 million, according to Charlie Grantham, president of the Institute of Distributed Work in Walnut Creek, CA.

The virtual office will become the dominant workplace for professional employees in the coming century, according to Victoria Whiting, an assistant professor of management at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

Robert Moskowitz, president of Washington, DC-based American Telecommuting Association, lists seven reasons why companies ought to institute a telecommuting policy:

  1. Most jobs, other than those requiring one-on-one personal contact or direct supervision, lend themselves to telecommuting. Practically all office functions can be performed from a remote location.
  2. Overhead expenses (rent, furniture, equipment, utilities) are cut dramatically. The more days spent telecommuting, the greater the savings.
  3. Telecommuting allows for recruitment from a broader geographic area.
  4. Workers who are attracted to this option tend to be of a higher quality (more productive and motivated workers).
  5. Productivity increases.
  6. The company gets an image boost. The public views the company as one that is worker-oriented and concerned with energy conservation.
  7. Turnover and sick days are reduced.

“The times they are a changin’”
Ten years ago, mostly large companies experimented with telecommuting. Today, many companies are contemplating telecommuting, but it’s technology firms (hardware, software, e-commerce, and Internet), as well as telecommunications and financial services industries, that have embraced it in a big way.

Merrill Lynch is one of several companies that pioneered the concept of telecommuting, starting out with staff in its Somerset, NJ, office in 1994. The successful telecommuting program is guided and managed by Eileen Keyes, assistant vice president and business manager of the company’s Alternative Work Arrangement Program.

Merrill Lynch employs 56,600 people in the United States, 2,350 of whom telecommute. The Somerset office boasts 700 telecommuters, supervised by Keyes and a staff of seven.

Keyes and Merrill Lynch executives designed a comprehensive telecommuting policy, which has served as a guide for many companies wishing to test a telecommuting program.

Once there is unanimous agreement among managers, Keyes estimates it can take as long as a year to launch a telecommuting policy for a large company (more than 500 employees) and as little as three months for a small one.

Not everyone is cut out for telecommuting
But, as exciting as the prospect of telecommuting sounds, it’s not for everyone. First, you have to be telecommuting material, and second, you must evaluate the effect it has on your career.

Not everyone is capable of coping with the isolation of working alone, according to Keyes. “The best candidates are highly motivated performers with a good work ethic,” she says. That means having excellent time management and communication skills.

In short, you must be a highly disciplined person who’s not going to hit the refrigerator every hour or sneak out for quick bike rides when the mood strikes you. Constant breaks in your routine interrupt your workflow and ultimately hamper productivity, according to Keyes.

Keyes telecommutes four days a week, thus combining theory and practice. If anyone can address the pros and cons of telecommuting, it’s her. “There are a lot of misconceptions about telecommuting,” she says. “Uppermost, it is not a substitute for child care or eldercare, but is simply another way of working. It means creating an environment within your home that allows you to do your job.”

Easier said than done. Keyes stresses the importance of creating what she calls a “dedicated work space.” In plain English, create a real office environment.

But an incredible workspace isn’t worth much if you don’t have the cooperation of everyone in your home, permitting uninterrupted work most of the day. That can be a tall order if you have small children around the house, according to Michael Quinn, president of New York City-based IT staffing company InPlace Technical Resources, Inc. Quinn has placed several telecommuters over the last few years.

“You can’t telecommute and care for small children at the same time,” says Quinn. “Child care provisions have to be made.”

Don’t go it alone
“Even if you have the physical environment, telecommuting will fail if you don’t have management support,” Quinn asserts. “If a company expects to run a successful telecommuting program, it has to make a commitment of time and resources. A good working relationship must be created so that your project manager understands your needs and is accessible.”

By the same token, you also need technical support to do your job. “What if your system goes down or if there is a technical glitch you can’t solve?” Quinn asks. “Is there a support person you can call to fix the problem immediately? If you have to wait hours to get help, your productivity suffers.”

If you’re blessed with excellent support and a good working relationship with your company, Quinn warns telecommuters to watch out for another common problem: separating work and home life. “It’s easy for them to meld into each other, which ought to be avoided at all costs,” he says. “Successful telecommuters work hard at creating schedules separating work and home responsibilities.”

If telecommuting suits you, Keyes recommends easing into it slowly. “Start out doing it once, then twice, but no more than three times a week,” she says. “It’s important not to lose touch with your office. I suggest coming in twice a week for meetings and to pick up on office business.”

Good or bad for your career?
Despite the advantages for companies, telecommuting could have a negative impact on your career, warns Jack Nehiley, senior vice president of Management Recruiters International, The Boston Group, a Boston-based executive search firm specializing in technology. Nehiley distinguishes between people who telecommute temporarily (project managers installing ERP systems at a client’s location for weeks or months, for example) and low- to mid-level technical people who request it on a permanent basis as part of their job.

“If you’re on a fast track and hell-bent on moving into middle management or senior level ranks, the best place to be is at the company’s home office where you can be seen and heard five days a week, eight hours a day,” says Nehiley. “Companies have and always will want team players who can be a part of the daily functioning of a company.”

David K. Amsden, director of the technology practice at Cleveland-based search firm Christian & Timbers, agrees. “At least 75 percent of the time, companies want their key people where they can see them.”

The folks who are negotiating sweet telecommuting arrangements, according to Nehiley and Amsden, are high-level senior execs who can create their own work arrangement because they’re in such incredible demand. “These much sought-after execs are saying, ‘If you want me, you’ll have to allow me to telecommute two or three days a week,’” says Nehiley. “Many companies are allowing it because they can’t get great people any other way so they build a telecommuting arrangement into the recruitment package as a perk.”

But, when company decision-makers are pressed, according to Amsden, they’d admit they’d rather have their senior people at headquarters at all times.

To telecommute or not to telecommute?
The advice from the experts is to see telecommuting in perspective. If you’re working at an interim job for six months to a year, a telecommuting experience can be a valuable exercise in self-discipline and for polishing organizational and time management skills. “It’s a great way to improve your work habits,” says Merrill Lynch’s Keyes.

But, if your goal is to stand out and build a career with a company, Nehiley and Amsden say you’d do well planting traditional roots in the corporate office so you’re seen and heard and your accomplishments are known to the smartly dressed folks in the big offices. When you’re wheeling-and-dealing from a position of strength as a much-sought-after senior manager with a groundbreaking career in e-commerce or Internet, then you can call the shots and telecommute a couple of days a week from your spacious home overlooking the ocean.

Bob Weinstein’s weekly syndicated column, TECH WATCH, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. It appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

In February, TechRepublic will take a closer look at telecommuting and will offer a downloadable white paper on the topic. If you’d like to share your telecommuting experiences, please drop usa note .