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Home, sweet office


As a sales representative for U.S. Bank, Keith Wilhite will tell you his office is essentially his car. But when he’s not on the road, he can pull into his driveway and conduct business from home.

“I couldn’t go back to working in a (traditional) office,” said Wilhite, who has worked from an office in the basement of his Waukee home since 1996. His wife, Tanya, a pharmacist who’s employed by Novartis, began working from home in December.

Iowa Workforce Development does not currently track data on such “virtual workers,” said Paula Nissen, project manager for its Workforce Research Bureau. But given several recent inquiries about it, it’s a statistic they may begin tracking in their surveys, she said.

In Des Moines, Xerox Corp. recently allowed its entire 23-person sales staff to begin working from home offices. Each employee was paid a stipend to set up their home office as they saw fit.

The companywide effort isn’t the first time Xerox has attempted to set up a virtual office arrangement for its employees, said Carl Langsenkamp, Xerox’s manager of corporate public relations.

“Actually, probably about six years ago we thought we’d try a program like this,” he said. “This was before DSL and cable modems, so we had to pull back and have them come back.”

Then, about two years ago, the company began pilot programs in two cities, based on extensive employee input.

“As we’ve rolled out to more cities, we always meet first with the employees and work it out with them how it best works in that city,” Langsenkamp said. The company now has some 700 employees working virtually in more than 50 cities across the country.

One of the first Des Moines sales staff to make the switch said he prefers working virtually.

“It seems like we can get a lot more done and that we’re more productive,” said Brett Johnson, a four-year employee who began working from his home a month ago. “It seems like we start earlier and without the commute, there’s more hours in the day.”

Xerox estimates it’s saved between $18 million and $24 million since it implemented the program, primarily by not having to lease as much office space. Whether the arrangement has also increased productivity won’t be clear until the end of this year, when more sales data is available from the participating cities, he said.

For the Wilhites, the positives of working from home outweigh the negatives.

“There are fewer interruptions,” said Tanya, who before joining Novartis worked for the Drake University College of Pharmacy at its Iowa Heart Center teaching location. “I can get a lot more done at home. … It’s structured in that you structure your time yourself, which is nice.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about working from home is that you can effectively take care of your children as well, said Keith. Both he and Tanya are on the road up to four days a week, so the couple’s two daughters, ages 2 and 6, attend all-day day care.

“I think I probably work more now than I did before I worked from home,” he said. Working on his own is sometimes lonely, but he speaks with his colleagues at the bank and is in constant contact with his clients, who are car dealers.

Making arrangements to have lunch together at home would seem to be simple, but with their different schedules it actually doesn’t happen as often as they’d like, Tanya said. Housework doesn’t get done during the day, either.

“I think the main thing is you have to like what you do,” she said. “You have to be a self-starter and focused on what you’re doing.”

As for the Xerox employees, there haven’t been any who have decided against working from home, Langsenkamp said.

“So far, so good,” he said. “In any cultural change, there are going to be some people who are going to have some issues. I can tell you in the past year we have been able to point people back to these other cities (that have already implemented it virtual officing) and say, ‘Call people you’ve worked with.’ That’s helped us immensely.”      STUDY REPORTS BENEFITS OF TELEWORK

Fifteen percent of the U.S. workforce now works from home at least one day per week, according to a recent study by the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. About one-sixth of those workers, some 3.4 million people, worked at home for an employer, according to the study.

The study, “Telework: Part of the Work-Life Balance Equation,” reported that employer benefits from telework included expanded pools of potential workers, including the disabled and those with responsibilities for caring for children.

Four out of five workers who regularly work from home are in managerial, professional or sales positions. Married workers were almost twice as likely to work from home than their single counterparts.

Overall, the foundation estimates that 65 percent of current jobs are amenable to telework arrangements.

Another study estimates that 80 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies have at least some portion of their workforce working from home.   

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