The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 10, 2013

Telecommuting: Truly at home in the office

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

— In his former job, Jason Giroux would leave his office and go home after work.

Now when he leaves his office, he is home.

“I believe I’m more productive working at home,” said the North Mankato Web designer⁄marketing specialist. “I definitely would have a hard time going back to an office at this point.”

Giroux is among the tens of thousands of telecommuters in Minnesota who have made the state a national hotbed of home workers.

Moreover, Mankato⁄North Mankato and St. Cloud are among the top 10 metro areas nationally in percentages of work-at-home workforces with Mankato⁄North Mankato at 7.7 percent and St. Cloud at 7.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Although such national companies as Best Buy and Yahoo recently have pulled the plug on work-at-home employees, saying corporate collaborative and creative needs are best served by on-site staff, similar blowback in Minnesota appears to be all but nil.

In fact, the Twin Cities metro area won a share of a $1 billion federal funding award a few years ago for its efforts to promote telecommuting as a means of easing traffic congestion.

Mankato⁄North Mankato at last count had more than 4,000 people working at home full and part time.

Greater Mankato Growth President and CEO Jonathan Zierdt said when he heard about the area’s and the state’s thriving cohort of home workers, he had some questions:

“Who are these people, what are they doing, and why?”

Census data and his personal observations helped with the answers.

“In the Upper Midwest we have a strong work ethic, and if you’re working at home for somebody, you’ve got to have that characteristic. Also, you have to have flexible employers.”

At Minnesota State University, 17 people have arrangements to work at home for part of their work week under the school’s detailed telecommuting policy.

Among the conditions: Employees must not use telecommuting privileges as a substitute for appropriate child care arrangements; and telecommuters must be available by phone or email during work hours.

By statistical census definition, a telecommuter is someone whose work is home-based at least one day a week. Most telecommuters don’t work from home full time and typically report to their workplaces a couple or more days a week.

Conventional wisdom against working at home holds that workers off site can’t be monitored to ensure they’re being productive.

The counter argument: There’s no way of totally ensuring that for office workers either. Hence the term “water cooler talk.”

The incidence of Mankato⁄North Mankato people working at home may simply be a logical extension of what’s been going on for years.

The area’s relative proximity to the Twin Cities has long enabled workers to drive to jobs there.

Zierdt agrees that the onset of computer technology has allowed telecommuting to replace those daily grinds of physical commuting.

Then there’s Scott Rahe, who would have required a fast plane to commute daily to his job at South Central College in North Mankato.

Rahe, the school’s graphic specialist the past eight years, became a telecommuting trailblazer at SCC a few years ago when he moved to Grand Forks, N.D., while his wife worked on her master’s degree.

SCC Marketing Director Ann Anderson said the school didn’t want to lose a valuable employee, so a telecommuting arrangement was worked out. She said any concerns were soon allayed.

“He actually had more creative time to work. It was wonderful. There were great benefits.”

Said Rahe, who telecommuted 11⁄2 years before returning: “It was pretty smooth. I don’t ever remember thinking it wouldn’t work.”

Rahe said he would return to SCC every two or three weeks to touch base.

Deana Colemer, SCC’s director of research planning and grants, arranged to work from home just north of the Twin Cities when her family relocated due to her husband’s job promotion.

She said the couple’s children, 13 and 10, are in school most of the time, but when they’re at home, they know the house ground rules: Mom’s at work and not to be disturbed.

“Technology makes this doable,” Colemer said. “In the morning I grab my purse, come downstairs and I’m at work.”

She said she uses Jabber (“kind of like Skype on steroids; it’s been a lifesaver”) to video teleconference with colleagues at SCC’s campuses in North Mankato and Faribault.

Colemer said she works on campus a day or so a week.

Web designer Giroux, meantime, said he thrives on working exclusively out of his home.

He’s part of a 30-employee company that does Web and marketing work for law firms throughout the nation.

As a former office worker, he said he had some concerns about working solely at home when he took the job, but he gave it a test run and it clicked for him.

He said he and his co-workers share physical face time only when they gather for yearly conferences.

This past year they met in North Carolina, which is a pretty good haul from Minnesota, but nothing like the trek the telecommuting company vice president had to make.

He lives in Iceland.  

Giroux has worked at home about a year. By contrast, media Web developer Don Lipps of Mankato is in his fifth year of telecommuting.

Lipps, who works for The Free Press’ Alabama-based parent company CNHI, said working at home was difficult at first.

“For the first three months I had a really hard time concentrating. There were a lot of distractions.”

He said although those barriers have been dissipated, another challenge remains.

“In wintertime I just get really tired of being at home.” 

Mary and Marty Cassem of Lake Crystal are a telecommuting married couple sharing a home office. He’s a distribution manager for a New Jersey bearings company; she’s an area community relations representative for the American Cancer Society.

“There’s definitely pros and cons,” Mary Cassem said of the work-at-home scenario. She said she enjoys the flexibility and freedom it affords, but having one’s workplace at home can act as a leash.

“You never quite get away from the office.”

Although technology has enabled work-at-home employees to do the heretofore impossible, it can’t replace a workplace’s intangible benefit — physical human connectivity.

“The ‘softer side’ of things is what I miss the most,” Colemer said.

Meaning: Try as it might, her computer screen can’t deliver one of those freshly baked cookies a co-worker just brought in.