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Telecommuting on the rise

More people are able to work from home efficiently

Brian Polk is seasoned at teleconferencing to stay connected to colleagues at work.

A senior developer with Ash Brokerage Corp., Polk at one time spent months primarily working from his home in Lakewood, N.J., rather than in the traditional workplace the insurance company had in that region.

Home offered the ultimate comfortable environment. And Polk relished the fact he didn’t have to commute regularly – saving time and gas money. Those factors, Polk said, put him in a better frame of mind for work tasks, including web and database application development and support.

“I actually had no issues with transition from work to home model,” said Polk, who worked for a firm, Delta Financial Associates, which merged into Ash Brokerage insurance firm in 2009. It was that merger and eventual shifting of office sites, Polk said, that led to him becoming a telecommuter.

“Being at home I actually found myself to be more productive in certain regards,” Polk said.

Such arrangements – short term or longer term – work well for some employees and certain businesses. But the flexibility that some employees favor with these arrangements versus the interest of having regular face-to-face contact with colleagues has been the source of debate in recent weeks. Yahoo’s relatively new CEO, Marissa Mayer, stirred the pot last month when word leaked of the ban she placed on telecommuting.

An internal company memo obtained by the media suggested Mayer believes communication and collaboration are best served by employees “working side-by-side.” The memo also said “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

But a new study from the nonprofit Families and Work Institute shows a tide moving the other way, with more workers now telecommuting – and men significantly more likely than women to be granted the freedom to work at least partially at home.

Chances are, one telework supporter said, that Yahoo just wasn’t doing it right.

“If you don’t know where your people are and what they’re doing, then you haven’t implemented properly, so she’s got her hands full,” said Kate Lister in San Diego, co-founder of Global Workplace Analytics, which collects data on the subject for its Telework Research Network.

Ash Brokerage, which has offices throughout the country, doesn’t have a company policy on telecommuting, said Joe Svitek, a finance and human resource leader, for the company. The decision to allow workers that flexibility is at managers’ discretion and “based on the business needs,” Svitek said.

Even as a work-from-home employee, Polk occasionally made trips between New Jersey and Fort Wayne to connect with colleagues. In November 2011, he gave up his home office in the Jersey state for a cubicle in the heart of the Midwest. He now lives about 10 minutes from the office, so there’s not much of a commute.

“It’s so much easier being there in person,” Polk said. “That is something I like so much better from a collaboration and team standpoint.”

Crowe Horwath LLP, is an accounting and consulting firm with about 2,700 employees nationwide, including about 35 in Fort Wayne.

The local office doesn’t have any regular telecommuters, said Jane A. Hoff, firmwide leader, human resources. But some of Crowe Horwath’s employees nationwide take advantage of the opportunity.

“Flexibility is a priority for us, and we have people who need to integrate their personal and professional demands,” Hoff said. “We want to be as flexible as possible to help people manage through that.”

Technology advancements have made such arrangements easier, Hoff said. And partly because of those conveniences, productivity doesn’t have to suffer.

“We trust our people and I think our people are passionate about serving their clients; that’s why they’re here,” Hoff said. “If anything, there’s an increase in productivity because we are allowing people to integrate personal and professional priorities.”

Allstar Communications in Fort Wayne has 24 employees, including a couple who work from home “quite a bit,” President Matt Hibiske said.

“It’s been a challenge. We’ve had to work hard to get that set up,” he said.

Many of Allstar’s employees who work from home do so by using a remote desktop server to allow tasks to be performed more quickly.

“One of the big setbacks for mobile workers is it’s hard to be efficient if the technology doesn’t perform as quickly as it does in the office,” Hibiske said.

Allstar provides phone systems, applications and computer network services to businesses. It also provides other high-tech services, including network-based security camera systems.

The right technology can enable companies to have systems where calls into a traditional office number ring into a phone at home. If someone needs to transfer a call to another worker, they can put someone on hold or “park” and use a button or application on a computer to transfer seamlessly.

“Basically your phone registers back to your phone system, so you have the full functionality of it,” said Hibiske, whose company has been in business more than 20 years.

For companies concerned about productivity, call accounting software can help monitor remote employees’ workload, he said.

When Christy Summers, a help desk technician with Ash Brokerage, works from her home, she said her call volume is no different than when she’s in the office.

Summers has been with the company almost seven years. She’s part time, providing computer IT support for employees and agents that work with Ash Brokerage.

She lives about 30 minutes south of Fort Wayne and works in the local office on Thursdays. The other three days of her work week are from her home office.

Summers was granted the work-from-home flexibility initially when her husband deployed to Iraq in 2008. He’s now on active duty with the National Guard, based in Muncie. They have two children at home, now ages 15 and 11; a third one lives on their own.

Summers said the one day a week she commutes to the Fort Wayne office helps her feel more part of the Ash Brokerage team, although her colleagues help keep her “in the loop.” But she also enjoys working from home.

“I really enjoy my job and I like what I do, and I think the flexibility really helps,” Summer said. “I feel like I have the best of both worlds I still can work and take care of my family and still feel like I’m a part of something.”

Associated Press contributed to this story.