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TECH CAREERS / KAREN KAPLAN

Telecommuters Can Stay on Career Path

September 16, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN

Telecommuting is great for people who want to cut back on freeway time, spend their days close to their families and generally escape the hassles that come with going to the office every day. Working from home can be a drawback, though, when it comes to career advancement.

"The biggest risk is that when you're out of sight, you're out of mind," said Jaclyn Kostner, president of Bridge the Distance International, a Colorado consulting firm that helps companies keep in touch with remote workers. "The research says that bosses will not think about [employees] who are not there when it comes time for promotions, even those who may be high performers."

But it doesn't have to be that way, Kostner said. With clear goals and effective communication, telecommuters--those who use computer networks, telephones, fax machines and e-mail to stay connected with the office while they work from home or elsewhere off-site--can stay competitive with their colleagues at the office.

Potential telecommuters should discuss with their supervisors their duties and how their work will be evaluated. Almost every job can be measured quantitatively, whether it's making a certain number of sales calls in a week or meeting a deadline. That makes it easier to measure a telecommuter's productivity in the absence of direct observation.

Once set up at home, telecommuters must keep in touch with the main office. In addition to regular phone contact, they should schedule one-on-one meetings with their managers at least once a quarter, Kostner said. They should also build a network of co-workers who can feed them information about projects and office politics. Of course, telecommuters should also venture into the office on a regular basis.

It's important for telecommuters to be explicit about their career goals. Since they miss out on informal chats around the water cooler, their supervisors might not be aware of their aspirations.

Tracy Hegeman telecommutes once or twice a week to her job as a member relations analyst with Kaiser Permanente. She says her pioneering arrangement has helped her build a positive image as a leader and boundary pusher.

"I have forced changes in the way the department allows people to conduct their business," she said. "The best thing is they listen to me, they follow me, and they treat me like a leader because I was able to break new ground."

Susan Herman, chair of the Southern California Telecommuting Partnership, a consortium of local governments and corporate sponsors, says telecommuters don't have to be at a disadvantage when it comes to career advancement.

"When the city [of Los Angeles] did a pilot project on telecommuting, we had 250 employees telecommuting and 250 who did not, all working for the same boss," she said. "It turned out that the telecommuters were 2% to 5% more likely to get promoted."

Herman says the reason for the difference is that the telecommuters "are significantly more productive. They have fewer disruptions and they are better organized . . . and that's what gets the boss' attention."

Karen Kaplan covers technology and careers. She can be reached via e-mail at karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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