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New Telecommuters Face Challenges

By Jeff Zbar

It's been two months since thousands of workers were thrust into home and remote offices. While many are thriving, enjoying a respite from long commutes and in-office distractions, many others struggle to do their jobs effectively in an environment they would have never chosen voluntarily. Some are concerned that as the months wear on, the negative experiences of mandatory teleworkers could result in a broader backlash.

"Take away the daily face-to-face interaction with peers, coworkers, and even managers, and you'll have people begging to come back into the office," warns Bill Morgenstern, vice president of human resources with Fortel, who's also working on a doctoral dissertation on telemanagement.

Laying out the problem, Morgenstern explains, "It's one thing to work at home for a few days after a natural disaster. But a catastrophe that displaces workers for months is immeasurably more challenging." Few new teleworkers' homes are equipped with separate business lines, broadband connections, or computer hardware to work professionally. Such workers are also ill-equipped to handle the stress, distractions, or isolation of the home office.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the majority of these arrangements are negative," he continues. "People take for granted the average interplay or exchange of information in casual meetings, the phone calls and discussions that are absent in a home office environment. That really can't be underestimated."

New Skills
But how will the negative experiences of some affect the telework movement as a whole?

The initial experience may leave many workers itching to get back into a corporate setting. Yet, these same workers will return changed people, anxious about spending their days working in icon buildings in bustling downtown districts or less tolerant of their long commutes. If they find they can't shake the anxiety of working in a traditional office tower, many may wend their way back to the home office as a way to spend more time working in safe surroundings.

Negative vibes aside, September 11 events will likely help accelerate the adoption process, adds IDC analyst Ray Boggs, citing the telework surge resultant from the October 1989 earthquake in Santa Cruz, California. With the city's transportation infrastructure in a shambles and workers fearing for their safety, working from home became a viable and preferable option.

"You won't create new teleworkers from those who wouldn't have done it voluntarily," Boggs argues. "But what you are getting are workers who will return to the office equipped with the skill set to work from home and interact with teleworkers better. These are tools their firms can make use of over time.",aid,72764,00.asp - November 23, 2001.