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For telecommuters, part-time or ad hoc stints are the norm

Christine Cesarino, an executive assistant at Advantage Payroll

Christine Cesarino, an executive assistant at Advantage Payroll Services in Freeport, telecommutes from her home office in Sayville 1-1/2 days a week. She and her son Dominic, 4, share some time together on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Christine Cesarino had a problem six years ago: She was ready to start a family, but wanted to keep her job as executive assistant at Advantage Payroll Services in Freeport.

When she proposed to her boss, Advantage Payroll founder and president Rob Basso, that she telecommute part time, he was reluctant at first, he said, but tried it out to keep a valued employee.

Now both boss and worker say that Cesarino’s schedule of telecommuting one and a half days a week is a win-win.

“You don’t always find a boss that cares this much, who says, ‘I want to keep you,’ ” said Cesarino, 33, of Sayville, who now has two children, ages 4 months and 4 years.

But she admits telecommuting alone wouldn’t work for her.

“You don’t have the personal connection, which is why I enjoy going into the office,” she said.

Telecommuting, originally seen by futurists as liberation from the tyranny of commuting to the office, has evolved into something different. It has become a broadly offered perk that eligible workers use sparingly — when emergencies or other contingencies get in the way of work for a few hours — or as a part-time way of working.

Telecommuting has particular appeal to tech-savvy millennial workers, who feel comfortable with reduced time in the office. Even older workers and their bosses see it as a valuable perk.

But telecommuting hasn’t replaced time in the office, because both workers and bosses find in-person communication and oversight too valuable to abandon.

That wasn’t how the future of telecommuting was forecast. A 1983 Forbes article, for example, talked about the “wonderful phenomenon of telecommuting, which promises to change the daily lives of millions of Americans as radically as the automobile did beginning half a century or so ago.” Futurists predicted that the personal computer would do away with brick-and-mortar offices, clear roadways of traffic and allow legions of workers to put in a full day’s work from the comfort of their homes.

Part-time preference

Instead, telecommuting has become widespread — and part-time.

The share of U.S. workers performing some or all of their work from home grew to 24 percent in 2015, from 19 percent in 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey released in June. It interviewed 10,900 people during 2015.

The average time spent working from home, on the occasions people did so, rose by 40 minutes — to 3.2 hours, the survey said.

One reason telecommuting is more frequently part-time or episodic instead of full-time is that many managers feel more comfortable managing people they can see, experts said.

“Executives have a hard time giving up control,” said Karen Sobel Lojeski, an assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Technology and Society. “They think that if people aren’t on the premises, they aren’t working as hard.”

But even some local workers who frequently telecommute acknowledge that, as much as they value it as a benefit, it works best when combined with in-office interactions with colleagues.

“I like going in and seeing people, and sometimes it is better to talk to someone face to face,” said Kay Spalding, executive director of marketing at Amalgamated Family of Companies in White Plains, who telecommutes part time from her home in Mineola. “So the two days at home and the three days of going into the office is kind of like the perfect situation for me.”

Telecommuting has other drawbacks, Sobel Lojeski said. Research shows that telecommuters “tend to stay chained to their computer more than people who actually go into an office,” she said.

The flexibility factor

Nevertheless, telecommuting has become an essential tool for attracting and retaining talented people, employers and workplace experts said.

“People are more and more requiring flexibility in their work life,” Sobel Lojeski said.

Telecommuting can come in handy during a crisis. To prevent worsening highway traffic when girding for a threatened Long Island Rail Road strike in 2014, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority contacted 1,400 employers across Long Island and New York City to encourage their employees to telecommute. It received commitments for at least 18,000 workers to work from home, the agency said at the time. A contract settlement prevented a strike.

Telecommuting was thrust into the news three years ago because of the outcry that ensued when Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, announced she was ending the perk, as she sought to turn around the ailing company. Verizon agreed to buy most of Yahoo last month.

The number of businesses offering at least limited telecommuting options has grown.

A survey of 3,490 human-resource professionals sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group in Alexandria, Virginia, shows that between 1996 and 2016 the percentage of organizations offering some form of telecommuting jumped threefold to 60 percent.

Many employees enjoy the autonomy that telecommuting brings, said Karen Ehrhart, a management professor at San Diego State University whose specialty includes work-life balance issues.

“The ability to make their own decisions is motivating them, and they can get things done on their own time and schedule,” she said.

Though the benefit has a cross-generational appeal, it is an especially strong lure for millennials.

“HR professionals will tell you that millennials are particularly interested in flexibility options, including telecommuting,” said Lisa Horn, who leads the HR society’s workplace flexibility initiatives.

Basso, the Advantage Payroll president, said he “had to think about it,” when Cesarino first pitched telecommuting part time. “How was I going to get the same work? I cannot ask her to do something in the office like pick up the mail or check with other staff members about something.”

But he said he realized others among the company’s 50 employees could handle those jobs when she was working from home.

“So it did change some work parameters, but I have not seen any detrimental signs because of it,’’ he said.

Most of all, he said, he wanted to hold on to a valuable employee. “The last thing I want is a key person who is unhappy,” he said.

Cesarino said that the telecommuting accommodation allowed her to be a “mom with a career” and solidified her loyalty to the company even more.

John Thornton, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Amalgamated Family, believes telecommuting is a must for his workers, including Spalding. All of his 14 salespeople based around the country work from home, and five of the workers at its White Plains office telecommute a day or two a week.

“It gives them the flexibility they may need to work efficiently but also to have a very good quality of life,” he said.

Spalding said the telecommuting helps her to be more productive overall. Without that option she would miss big chunks of her workday when she had a doctor’s appointment, for example.

“By the time you go to the doctor and drive up to White Plains, you lose half a day,” she said.

Dave Pasternack, chief executive and founder of Didit, a Mineola-based digital advertising company, doesn’t allow full-time telecommuting.

“We think that creativity, productivity and communication between employees is greatly enhanced when it is face-to-face,” Pasternack said.

But he said the company offers telecommuting on an as-needed basis. For example, in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy 80 percent to 90 percent of his employees worked from home.

“We didn’t want them driving in dangerous conditions,” he said.

On a regular basis about 10 of his 150 employees average one day a week of telecommuting.

“We use it more for retaining employees,” he said.

Don Donaudy, 62, chief creative officer of Didit, telecommutes long-distance. He spends two weeks out of every four on Long Island and two weeks in Boynton Beach, Florida, where he has a home.

His telecommuting began about a year ago while he split his time between working at his own advertising firm, Freshbrick, which was in Holbrook, and the house in Florida.

After Didit bought his company this summer, Donaudy was able to continue telecommuting.

The advantage, he said, is that “you are in the comfort of your home.”

Still need face time

But he said face time is also key to managing a team of creative people and keeping clients happy. “They want to have a human side to the product or service they are buying,” he said.

As for the issue of trust, Thornton of Amalgamated Family said, “You can put in checks and balances to make sure people are hitting their goals.”

That’s important, because experts expect telecommuting will continue to be an important perk.

“I think it’s almost expected now that you will offer a telecommuting option,” Thornton said.

24%: Percentage of workers who spent some time working at home in 2015

19%: Percentage of workers who spent some time working at home in 2003

3.2 hours: Average time spent working at home per occasion in 2015

2.6 hours: Average time spent working at home per occasion in 2003

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey


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