February 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Technology advances let more work from home

Two years ago, Candace Ragsdale’s job changed in a way that seemed almost too good to be true. She suddenly had more money, more time and less stress.

Yet her job as a customer service representative with Chico’s clothing company was exactly the same. The only thing that changed was where she worked. She shifted from clocking in at an office about 25 minutes away to working at home in Dacula, Ga.

“It was like a fairy tale,” said Ragsdale about the work setup.

Working on a specially equipped computer and phone, Ragsdale can perform her job duties just as she would at the Chico’s headquarters. In fact, today’s technology allows her supervisors to see a mirror image of her computer screen from a distance.

Telecommuting has been buoyed by advances in technology — from video conferencing to instant messaging to software allowing supervisors to see their employees’ every keystroke from miles away. From an environmental standpoint, every mile off the road reduces air pollution.

Telecommuting also offers benefits for the telecommuter: cost savings, from gas and wear and tear on the car to avoiding dry cleaning or restaurant meals; health benefits, from not having to battle bumper-to-chrome traffic; and time savings from eliminating a commute. Experts also say employers have a lot to gain, from saving costs on brick and mortar buildings to holding on to talented employees.

Experts also agree telecommuting isn’t for everyone. Some employees feel isolated and crave face-to-face contact with colleagues. Working from home can blur the lines between work and home, making it difficult to turn “off.”

Earlier this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer informed staff they needed to show up at the office every day. The decision was largely seen not as the beginning of the end of workplace flexibility, but rather as a shifting of strategy at a struggling company out of step with the modern workforce. But telecommuting is not gaining traction only for office jobs. Even electricians and plumbers, who may have had to go to the office to do paperwork, are turning to teleworking for those tasks.

Tedra Cheatham, executive director of The Clean Air Campaign, said her nonprofit has worked with about 250 companies for several years to start or expand telework programs. Working remotely, she said, requires planning and preparation. Employers need to clearly explain work goals and expectations, and have objective measures to evaluate performance. Meanwhile, employees should never develop a sense of entitlement about telecommuting, she said. And, she added, employees should always be prepared to go to the office for face-to-face meetings even if they occur on days normally reserved for working at home.

Cheatham said it’s a good idea to start slow, such as one day every two weeks, and then build toward more regular telecommuting.

Elham Shirazi, a telework expert and consultant based in Los Angeles, said the bulk of telecommuters work remotely one to three days a week, but about a third do so five days a week.

For workers who telecommute, Shirazi said it’s critical to set up a designated, well-organized work space and limit distractions. Shirazi said some of her clients wear work badges at home to send a message to family they are on the clock and should not be disturbed.

Increasingly, the work space is looking and acting the same — regardless of where it is. On a recent afternoon in her house, Casey Kelly video-chats with colleagues, reviews shared documents and holds a meeting with several people — all via her laptop computer.

For years Kelly, an account manager with PGi, a technology company based in Atlanta, has worked one to two days from her home in Lawrenceville, Ga., sparing herself the one-hour commute each way. But after her 7-year-old son broke his leg, she shifted to working from home every day temporarily. She credited one of her company’s products, iMeet, a virtual meeting product, with making the transition seamless.

“At first, after my son broke his leg, I needed to go to my son’s school a few times a day to help him out because he’s in a wheelchair,” said Kelly. “The school is just around the corner. But imagine if I had to drive from Buckhead every time. It would have been very difficult. I’ve been able to do my job from home, no questions asked.”

Back in Dacula, Ragsdale is happy to no longer drive 25 or so minutes each way on long, winding roads. She wears her pajamas to work in the morning and showering during her lunch hour. She has more time to work out. She loves eating at home. But the best part of telecommuting is when her shift ends at 3 p.m., she is exactly where she wants to be: home. She goes down a flight of stairs, opens the door, and meets her grandchildren getting off the school bus.