It turns out the work-from-home engineer really isn't a myth.
However, "engineer" was also in the top 20, which I found odd. So I asked for an engineer to drop me a line to let me know whether this is actually feasible.
I quickly heard from an engineer named Anita, who wrote in an email that she was surprised to see her job title on the list. But thanks to some changes she chose to make in her work life, she has become a telecommuting engineer.
Anita wrote that she worked for an engineering contracting firm with a national laboratory as a full-time employee for four years. But when she remarried, she chose to select part-time work that she could do from home after moving to the city in which her husband worked.
"Engineers typically work in groups and not alone so that not all the members of the groups have to be on-site or in the office," Anita wrote. "As long as at least one person in the group is available to take care of on-site issues, it is OK for the others to work remotely.
"The one drawback to being an engineer and working exclusively from home is that there are some activities that simply can't be taken care of remotely. These items are also the same ones that get you promoted within companies."
This is a common problem faced by telecommuters and one I'll address more fully in a future column. Anita wrote that she was a project engineer in her previous job, tasked with telling others what to do.
"Those tasks would have been difficult to do effectively from home, so I gave them up," she wrote. "Now I am back to being a 'doer,' which is just fine with me. ... I believe it has been a win-win for me and the company, since I get a little extra income and they get an experienced employee who can work with the ebb and flow of the job and who doesn't go on overhead when the work is light."
It does sound like this is an ideal situation, Anita, and I'm glad you've worked it out.
I've written many times before that such flexibility can be helpful for both employees and employers if they're willing to work at it. Reading about Anita's work arrangement reminded me of an email I received recently from Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis.
In a recent survey of U.S. chief information officers conducted by the company, 30 percent cited communication — namely a lack of face time — as their greatest challenge in managing a remote work force. Another 22 percent cited productivity, or a lack of insight into how work gets done, and 22 percent mentioned technology, or making sure workers have access to information.
The survey was based on more than 2,300 telephone interviews with CIOs from U.S. companies with 100 or more employees in 23 major metro areas.
As Anita mentioned, some tasks definitely are harder to do from home. And likewise, some teams may be harder to manage when people are working remotely.
To help combat the latter problem, Robert Half Technology offered four tips to help technology executives manage remote teams effectively. The company suggests:
- "Outline expectations." Robert Half Technology suggests that you let remote workers know how often they should check in by phone or email. "Also, set clear goals and benchmarks to help mobile workers stay on track with objectives," the company said.
- "Leverage technology tools." Managers need to make sure telecommuters have access to teleconferencing, online meetings and file-sharing services to improve collaboration. "Confirm that everyone can stay in touch easily and access the information they need quickly and securely," the Robert Half release said.
- "Create opportunities for face time." It's a good idea to ask people who work remotely to spend a day in the office a few times each month if possible, the company said. Also encourage them to attend important events and meetings in person.
- "Check in with remote employees regularly." This was my favorite point, as the Robert Half release mentioned that remote work arrangements can blur the lines between an employee's work and personal life. "Some employees who work from home have trouble 'unplugging.' Encourage them to create balance, which ultimately aids productivity in the long term," the company said.
There's my favorite word: balance. As important as it is for individual workers, it's also important for companies to find a balance between their bottom-line needs and the possible benefits of allowing workers to choose flexible work arrangements. Building an environment that allows for such arrangements can be difficult, but companies that put in the time reap the benefits of both a happier work force and the same or better productivity.
Anita would seem to prove this is true. While her situation is a bit different since she's not working full time, she is clearly offering value to her employer even if she isn't in the office.
With creativity and patience, such "win-win" opportunities could present themselves for more and more companies. That bodes well for strengthening the trend toward flexible work in the future.