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Work-from-home jobs come into their own

Amber Ruth, Senior Technical Lead for America's Remoth Help Desk

Amber Ruth has two officemates, Charlie and Scooter.

Charlie is her dog, a German shepherd-Lab mix, and Scooter is her part-minx cat.

“He likes to play fetch,” she said of Scooter. “I’m on the phone, and tossing my cat’s ball.”

Like other employees of America’s Remote Help Desk, an Eldersburg-based company that provides remote technical support, Ruth works from home. Her office is a converted bedroom in her White Marsh townhouse.

The advantages of working from home “are the obvious,” said Ruth, 36, who was the company’s first hire nearly 11 years ago. “There’s no wear and tear on my vehicle, and my commute is walking down the hall.”

She also saves money because she does not need an extensive wardrobe for work, and she saves time because she’s never stuck in rush-hour traffic.

Cons include a lack of water-cooler interaction and that she has to work even when blizzards keep other workers from their jobs.

Still, Ruth said she considers teleworking a job perk, one that adds to the flexibility of her days.

“It was an attractive incentive,” she said.

What’s not to love?

Teleworking has become more common as technology has evolved, and advocates say the benefits outweigh any disadvantages. When employees work from home, companies save money, job satisfaction rises and productivity increases, they say. And by eliminating commutes, teleworkers reduce energy consumption, cut road congestion, minimize environmental damage and decrease the risk of traffic accidents.

“I think everybody should be doing this,” said Chuck Wilsker, president and chief executive officer of The Telework Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides telework advocacy and education. “I just don’t know if the mental state is there yet.”

Wilsker said telework has been shown to save companies an average of $20,000 a year per employee, on everything from office space and furniture to coffee and paper towels. Workers save $8,400 a year on average by buying less gas, cutting vehicle use and forgoing office attire, he said.

Teleworking is a good way to improve employee retention and cut absenteeism, Wilsker said. It prevents the spread of illnesses in offices and promotes business continuity.

Yet many companies and workers are reluctant to make such a shift in their own work environments. Employers worry that workers won’t be as productive when they are unsupervised, and some workers fear they would miss the camaraderie of an office.

Changing the debate

Maryland is working to erase those inhibitions and help companies establish telework incentive programs through TeleworkBaltimore.com, a partnership between the state Department of Transportation and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Since early 2010, the group has partnered with California-based Telecommuting Advantage Group to provide research and advice to organizations interested in telework.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in organizations willing to investigate it,” TAG CEO Rick Albiero said. In the 10 years since TAG was founded, he said, the organization has helped about 100 companies nationwide to develop telework programs. Not one has dropped the program for lack of success, he said.

In the Baltimore region, about 60 organizations have registered to receive information from TAG, Albiero said, and several, including the Harford County Government, are moving forward.

The federal government has also worked to improve teleworking. The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires federal agencies to establish a formal teleworking policy and provide training and support resources for their employees.

Nearly every industry can benefit from a telework program, Albiero said, noting that his clients include law firms, software companies, health care organizations and even law enforcement units.

Still, resistance remains.

“The biggest question I get is, ‘How do I know they are working?’” said Wilsker. “Which I love because, how do I know when they’re working in the office?”

Wilsker said many people already telework to an extent, relying on their laptops when they travel, responding to messages on smartphones, finishing reports at home in the evening or the wee hours of the morning.

“The resistance to doing it is stupid,” he said. “Your employees are doing this anyway.”

Make it official

Albiero said the biggest mistake companies make when moving to telework is failing to create a formal program. Often, he said, the process begins with one employee the company wants to keep. But formal programs spell out expectations for both employees and the employers, he said.

TAG helps companies create systems that track employee work. In many cases, workers are required to be at their desks and available for teleconferences between certain hours of the day, Albiero said.

Ruth, for example, has set work hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for her job as a help desk analyst.

“They can see if we’re logged in, if we’re taking calls,” she said of her employer.

She uses her own computer, but the rest of the technology comes from America’s Remote Help Desk. Customers connect to Ruth by dialing the company’s main number, then an extension. Workers can collaborate and share documents.

When he’s not on the road, Matt Weigl, an IT sales rep with America’s Remote Help Desk, also works from home.

“I can be much more productive some days not having that hour commute,” he said of the drive between his White Marsh home and the Eldersburg office.

He said the company, founded 12 years ago, is growing, in part because more firms are adopting technologies that allow a remote workforce.

The company, which has 41 employees, recently was recognized by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot with one of 24 statewide “Better with Less” awards, in recognition of its reduced-cost operating model.

“There’s certainly less overhead, not needing to be able to house 41 employees,” Weigl said.

When interviewing a potential hire, the work situation is mentioned early, he said. Although working from home “is a huge selling point” to many potential workers, it is not for everybody, and “sometimes that kills the deal.”

But for Ruth, who used to commute from White Marsh to Columbia each day, working from home was a welcome change.

“Being in traffic for over an hour or an hour and a half sometimes was not fun,” she said.