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Helmut Schmidt, Published March 09 2013

More in F-M work from home

FARGO - Beverly Greenwald is firmly planted in Fargo, healing people as a family nurse practitioner at Essentia Health.

At the same time, she’s also Dr. Greenwald, teaching people in San Angelo, Texas, how to heal people, working online as an assistant professor in the graduate nursing program at Angelo State University.

For four and a half years, she’s taught two classes a semester of five to 10 students, 20 maximum, on aspects of becoming a nurse practitioner.

“Wherever I go, I just take my laptop with me. That’s pretty much what I need to do my job,” Greenwald said.

The virtual world is today’s reality, she said.

“I think a lot of students are so accustomed to living in this type of society. For them, it would be very difficult to go back into a classroom. Even people on campuses have to have a lot more dynamic classrooms,” Greenwald said.

Millions of Americans – and thousands of residents in the Fargo area – spend at least part of their work week telecommuting: doing work for far-flung companies from their homes, coffee houses, hotels, anywhere they can get an Internet connection.

The numbers of at-home workers, both telecommuters and those who own their own businesses, has steadily increased since 1997. The percentage of workers who toiled at home at least one day every week grew from 7 percent in 1997 to 9.5 percent in 2010 – about 13.4 million people – according to the U.S. Census’ Survey of Income and Program Participation.

Meanwhile, those working strictly from home rose from 4.8 percent of the work force to 6.6 percent, the census survey showed.

That’s partly why there was shock, even anger, in tech circles when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently reined in her firm’s liberal work-at-home policy. Working at home is now limited there, and all employees are expected to return to the office to help spur creativity and teamwork. Minnesota-based Best Buy followed suit last week, ending a telecommuting-friendly policy for its corporate employees.

In the Fargo-Moorhead area, the number of people working from home grew from 3,425 in 2005 to 3,931 in 2010, 3.3 percent of the total work force. Those who work from home say it can be a blessing that makes work-life balance easier and better reflects the nature of some occupations, but it also presents challenges most 9-to-5 office jobs don’t.

It’s all about trust

Julie Deutz, a senior content publishing manager for Microsoft in Fargo, has telecommuted at least part of her workday for about 15 years – ever since her sons were in middle school.

“Where someone is physically located is not a huge concern. What is important is that people complete their work and on deadline,” she said.

In some places, it makes great sense for Microsoft. For example, traffic is horrendous in the Seattle area, home of its corporate headquarters, with commutes of two hours common. That’s time better spent working from home, she said – if you’ve got the right type of person.

“There’s a certain aspect of trust involved. A huge aspect of trust,” Deutz said.

Workers have to be self-motivated. And managers need to be engaged and doing the work they need to do. Deutz said Microsoft does a great job of making sure it hires people who meet those benchmarks.

Without those things, “managing people remotely can turn into a real nightmare,” Deutz said.

Recent news reports indicate that is what drove Yahoo’s decision, claiming that Mayer used tracking data from the firm’s virtual private network, the system employees use to securely access the firm’s computer system, to find employees weren’t plugged in as often as they should have been.

Katie Hasbargen, the senior communications manager for Microsoft Fargo, said not everyone gets to telecommute for the software giant.

She says it may be ironic that Microsoft makes software that lets people work remotely, but working from home is “really going to depend on what your job is.”

At the same time, almost everyone, including herself, has telecommuted, thanks to Wi-Fi, smart phones, tablets and cloud computing.

“Gone are the days when you walk out of the office door, your job ends,” Hasbargen said. “The workplace is becoming more and more flexible.”

Finding an end to the workday is a separate, but related, problem. Seven out of 10 U.S. workers say technology has allowed work to move into their personal lives, according to Accenture, a management consulting, technology and outsourcing firm.

Deutz said the occasional demands of working from home have to be weighed.

“You’re on call more than eight hours a day. It may mean you work later into the evening. Some people aren’t comfortable with that. I always felt it was an opportunity to work at a demanding job,” said.

A more flexible world

According to the 2010 American Community Survey, two Minnesota cities are among the top 10 metro areas in the nation for rates of working at home. Boulder, Colo., topped the list at 10.9 percent of its workers working from home, while Mankato-North Mankato was sixth at 7.7 percent and St. Cloud was eighth at 7.6 percent.

Sundog, a marketing and technology firm in Fargo, prides itself on being flexible in where employees can work, spokeswoman Heidi Haaven said.

If a worker has a sick child, or their day care closes, they can telecommute, she said. Others may work in a nearby coffee shop.

Jodie Frankl has gone a little farther, though.

Frankl, who acts as a liaison between customers and Sundog project teams, had to move from the area when her husband took a job with the Air National Guard in Minot, N.D. Now she works part-time for Sundog from her home in Velva, N.D.

She’ll spend three to four hours a day in front of a web cam working with clients. When she’s not working, she can be with her 17-month-old daughter.

“It’s really the best of both worlds for me,” Frankl said. But “I really do miss the atmosphere of Sundog. I do miss that camaraderie.”

Both Sanford Health and Essentia Health in Fargo employ telecommuting, though Sanford offered no further information.

Sarah Carlson, who directs human relations for Essentia in Brainerd and Fargo, said telecommuting is used in Fargo by the 10 to 15 people reviewing medical claims before they are billed to insurance firms. In the Brainerd area, 30 to 40 people do coding and transcribing physicians’ dictations.

“It’s been fairly successful,” she said.

A very short commute

David Held, digital strategy manager for Border States Electric, spent last year telecommuting.

He’s in an office now, but he liked going to work without leaving his home.

Held worked at ExactTarget, an Indianapolis-based email marketing firm. He was a project manager helping clients such as Discount Tire and Chipotle.

“They embraced this movement to remote. It was fascinating,” Held said.

His team could include a designer or a technical person, but most of them also worked remotely.

“It was kind of this remote culture,” Held said. “We were all technical in nature. We were all comfortable in front of computers. That’s how people communicate today.”

Teresa Joppa, an attorney for Council 65 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, loves telecommuting from Moorhead.

“I think it’s terrific. I go to work every day, most of the time in blue jeans and sweatshirt, unless I’m going to travel to city hall, or with clients, or to the Capitol,” Joppa said.

At times, there are long hours. Half of last weekend was spent preparing a brief for the Minnesota Court of Appeals, she said. And the phone can ring at night and on the weekends.

“You have to learn to walk away when your office is at home,” Joppa said.

She also sometimes misses the daily interaction of a law office, but that has drawbacks, too.

“I think I would get less done. … I’d be talking to other people too much,” she said.

Back at Angelo State University, Susan Wilkinson, head of the department of nursing and rehabilitations sciences, is glad she can tap the expertise of someone like Greenwald from Fargo.

Otherwise, she said her school couldn’t offer the medical programs that her part of Texas needs to produce family nurse practitioners.

“It really doesn’t matter where the person lives. It’s a win-win for us,” Wilkinson said.

Some fast facts about Americans working at home

• About one-fourth of home-based workers are in management, business and financial occupations.

• Home-based work in computer, engineering and science occupations increased 69 percent between 2000 and 2010.

• About one in 10 workers who worked exclusively from home were older than 65 in 2010.

• Nearly half of home-based workers are self-employed.

• The most popular days worked at home for those who work both at home and onsite were Monday and Friday.

• Those who usually worked both onsite and at home during a typical week worked similar hours per week when compared to those who worked only onsite.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583