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Telecommuters may go nowhere -- careerwise

January 17, 2007|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Maybe Woody Allen was right, that 80% of life really is just about showing up.

At least that's what most executives seem to think about people who work from home.

Telecommuters are less likely to get promoted than peers who head into the office every day, according to a global survey of 1,300 executives released Tuesday by Los Angeles-based executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.

That's even though most of the executives consider telecommuters to be at least as productive as their desk-bound colleagues, according to the survey. And three-quarters of those bosses also said they'd like a job in which they could regularly telecommute.

The survey results come as many companies are allowing more employees to telecommute, work flexible hours and even share jobs in order to attract and retain talented employees, often women with young children.

The paradoxical findings speak to a "general fear" that workers who have the boss' ear in the office will get promoted ahead of an off-site colleague who is doing better work, said Michael Distefano, vice president of global marketing at Korn/Ferry. "It's silly when you think about that."

Executives may also be concerned about promoting a hard-core telecommuter to a management position in which face time with employees is essential, he said.

Although the survey did not define "telecommuting," arrangements for off-site work vary widely across companies and often within firms from job to job. Some employees work entirely off-site or from the road, and others may log on from home on an ad hoc basis.

Estimates of the number of telecommuters vary, but their ranks seem to have risen steadily in recent years. In 2003, 7.4 million American employees worked from home during business hours at least one day per month, according to the Telework Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group. The Census Bureau counted 4.2 million telecommuters in 2000.

Although some jobs -- retail sales, for example -- don't lend themselves to telecommuting, the ranks of off-site workers now include a variety of white-collar and professional workers. Those include virtual call center representatives, financial managers, accountants and insurance agents.

Employees are quick to cite the advantages of their home office routine, including no time lost to commuting, the ability to work in pajamas and bedroom slippers, and quieter surroundings.

Human resource managers say telecommuting and other work-life programs cut turnover and improve productivity.

"Water-cooler time costs money," said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey recruiting and consulting firm. "If you can do one, two days a week from your home office, you're a lot more productive."

The executives surveyed recognize those advantages; 78% reported that their telecommuting workers were more productive than or as productive as office-bound colleagues.

Yet 61% dinged telecommuters as being poorer bets for advancement.

"That's a very surprising result," said Jennifer Allyn, a human resource manager for accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which allows many employees to telecommute.

"From our perspective, that face time, being present in the office, has nothing to do with what it takes to advance."

But she and other executives recognize the pitfalls for workers, offering materials to help telecommuters and employees who travel frequently to maintain strong office relationships.

"If you're not cultivating the right network of people, you won't move up in any setting, whether you're telecommuting or not," Allyn said.

Despite their hesitations, 77% of the executives said they would consider taking a job in which they regularly telecommuted, a finding that Korn/Ferry's Distefano doesn't find surprising.

"Even though it's detrimental," he said, "I would still want to do it because it beats sitting on the 405 every day."

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molly.selvin@latimes.com

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