Although not all web workers prefer to work outside of corporate offices, a lot of us do. So finding companies that are amenable to the idea of telecommuting is always a boon. Those organizations often have leadership that is comfortable with the idea of managing people who are “out of sight.”
One such firm is SunGard Higher Education, based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, which provides software, consulting and outsourcing services to 1,600 universities and colleges worldwide.
According to senior VP Jeff Cottle, the company has 2,800 employees, of which 700 are “assigned as remote and do not have an office location.” Many of the others telecommute on a flex schedule, he said. “We don’t have a formal policy about who can and who can’t telecommute. Our managers make the decision of whether an individual can telecommute. When making that decision, the manager considers the person’s work responsibilities and his or her performance, among other factors.”
To find out what employment at SunGard as a telecommuter is like, we talked to Christine Mitchell, a professional services consultant specializing in content management.
Mitchell is often on the road, training people within client sites. At the time of our interview, she was actually recovering from foot surgery. And that, she said, was one of the advantages of telecommuting. “If I were in a corporate office, I would feel compelled to take less time to heal because I’d have to get up and get dressed and go to work. Or I’d be using short-term disability. This way, I’m handling clients from my living room because I need to sit in my recliner with my foot up.”
The flexibility extends to ordinary life too. “It doesn’t matter if I have to take the car in for an appointment or go to the doctor or take my mother in for an appointment,” said Mitchell. “It doesn’t matter if I want to get up at three in the morning or eight. I can schedule that.”
Her manager is savvy about telecommuting, because he does it too. Mitchell’s team meets by phone, though not on a regular schedule, because people are traveling all the time. “It’s not like you can say, ‘We’re going to have this meeting at 3 p.m.,’ because somebody might be with a client [then],” she said. “So we tend to find a spot, most often after hours — maybe 7 or 8 at night — when everyone can dial in from all different time zones.”
Mitchell, whose kids are grown, appreciates the company’s policies on travel. “They don’t ever have us travel on the weekend, unless we go overseas,” she said. Travel to the client site happens on Monday; return is on Thursday night. “That’s an ideal situation,” she said. “You’re not traveling Sunday night unless it’s really far away. And you’re not coming home on Saturday morning. It fits my lifestyle really well.”
Her tools of the trade are nothing more complex than a notebook computer, standard office applications and the corporate VPN for access to the network for email and IBM Lotus Sametime for messaging. The company provides the other office equipment she uses, as well as a Raindance account for setting up virtual classrooms for training sessions with clients and coworkers.
Mitchell also received a webcam, which she can choose to use to show her face during calls, but she chooses not to, she said, “because I don’t want to comb my hair and get dressed.” More specifically, she added, “I was finding my connection choppy because of the video, so I stopped using it.”
The company brings together employees twice a year in person — once in January for a training week in San Diego and again in the summer for a family fest in Hersheypark.
Of course, telecommuting has one downside, said Mitchell. At her last job, which was on-site in company headquarters, “I loved the people I worked with. We had a lot of fun,” she said. “We did happy hours.” Those are harder to come by now.
Does your company push telecommuting? If so, how do they make it easier and less isolating for you?