Working from home is supposed to make work easier. No more commuting. No more office politics. Nothing between you and your colleagues except a modem and a view of your backyard.
But if working from home is so easy, why do telecommuters find making it work so hard? Back in 1995, Wall Street giant Merrill Lynch posed that question - and devised a one-of-a-kind program to answer it. "You can't just give people computers, send them home, and call them telecommuters," says Camille Manfredonia, 34, a Merrill Lynch vice president who directs the firm's alternative work arrangements group, based in Somerset, New Jersey. "There are so many issues. What kind of equipment do you need? How will working from home affect your clients, your manager, your coworkers? How will it affect your career? How do you manage people effectively from a distance?"
Manfredonia's group has helped hundreds of Merrill Lynch telecommuters wrestle with these issues by insisting that they complete a grueling training program. So far, about 400 people have gone through the program. Hundreds more will complete it by the end of 1998. Even so, Manfredonia says, "We don't want to make telecommuting so easy that anyone can do it."
There's little chance of that. At Merrill Lynch, prospective telecommuters submit a detailed proposal that covers when and how they're going to work at home - and even what their new office will look like. Then they participate in a series of meetings with their manager and with Manfredonia's group. Finally, they spend two weeks in a simulation lab. "The simulation lets people, and their managers, experience the change," Manfredonia says.
But Merrill Lynch isn't just teaching its people how to work from home; it's developing a curriculum that everyone can learn from. Four lessons stand out.
1. You're out of the office - don't be out of the loop. Informal relationships can be more important than formal assignments. That's why Merrill Lynch requires most of its telecommuters to spend at least one day a week in the office. "Don't expect people to connect with you," says Manfredonia. "You have to stay connected with them. Be sure to go in when there's something special happening, whether it's a key meeting or a colleague's birthday party."
But don't just visit the office to swap gossip. Use your time there to help your coworkers understand how you spend your time at home. Says Eileen Keyes, 33, business manager for the alternative work group: "You never want to be in a position where your manager says, 'I wonder what Jane is doing - is she really working?'"
2. If you want freedom, get organized. You've scheduled a 2 p.m. call with a client. At 1:58, you reach for the receiver - and realize that you left your files at the office. Perfectly understandable, says Keyes - but totally inexcusable.
"You have to learn how to think like a telecommuter," she insists. "You have to plan a day ahead, a week ahead. What are you trying to accomplish? What materials will you need? Where are they?"
That kind of discipline takes practice. That's why Merrill Lynch has established three simulation labs - in Somerset; Jacksonville, Florida; and New York City. In these labs, telecommuter wannabes work on the same projects - and use the same equipment - that they'll handle outside the office.
Which means, of course, they make all the mistakes that they'll eventually learn to avoid. How can you put together a killer client presentation if you don't even have the right office supplies? "The lab helps people get comfortable with the technology," says Manfredonia. "But more importantly, it makes them more comfortable with the realities of working remotely."
3. To be creative, create new routines. Life in an office involves routines: a morning staff meeting, a standing lunch appointment. People who work from home escape those routines. That's a mixed blessing, argues Keyes. She urges telecommuters to establish new routines - and then to stick with them. One telecommuter at Merrill Lynch wakes up, takes a shower, drives down the road for coffee and a newspaper - and then heads back home to start work. "People are responsible for doing the same job as they did before," says Keyes. "They're just doing it in a different location."
The company requires that telecommuters document their at-home working hours and submit weekly progress reports. Some plan their at-home schedules in painstaking detail - down to the times of day when they check email. The point is not to prove they're working; it's to create routines that make their work more productive.
4. You can't work smart in a dumb home office. Who doesn't prefer checking email in their pajamas? But telecommuting isn't that simple. "Before they go through this program, a lot of people think that all they need is a desk and a chair," says Keyes. "We show them how to do things right."
Two years ago, Merrill Lynch sent out inspectors to check each home office; these days, telecommuters take photographs of their office and submit them for approval. Furniture must meet strict ergonomic standards. And there's no arguing about technology. The company spends about $7,000 per person to equip telecommuters with a state-of-the-art laptop, printer, and fax machine. It provides a 24-hour hotline for technical assistance.
All this discipline is paying dividends. Productivity, says Keyes, is definitely up. There's also been a steep decrease in turnover among the telecommuting population. "These people genuinely love their jobs," she says. "There's a lot less stress. Their satisfaction levels are way up."
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.