Teleworking HR

By Charlotte Garvey Aug 1, 2001
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HR Magazine, August 2001

With excellent communication skills, a good plan and credibility, HR can telecommute.

Human resource professionals have promoted telecommuting and its benefits for many years. But many havent had the opportunity to experience telecommuting firsthanduntil recently.

Thanks to technological advances, a growing acceptance of telecommuting and the changing nature of HR to an increasingly strategic, project-oriented profession, HR practitioners are getting a chance to reap the rewards of their own advocacy.

But, within individual organizations, barriers to the idea of HR telecommuting still exist. Employees may not accept the fact that they cant walk into their HR managers office to answer questions or solve problems. And CEOs may not understand that HR can perform well from home without sacrificing their jobs employee relations aspects.

With good communication skills, a solid plan and a track record for being available, some HR professionals are overcoming those barriers and establishing successful, productive telecommuting arrangements.

I really can get so much more done if Im doing a project in the eight or 10 hours at home than I can in eight or 10 hours at work, explains Terri Hoehne, SPHR, director of HR at Aurora University in Illinois.

Like many HR telecommuters, Hoehne works at home only part time. She schedules workdays at home on an as-needed basis for things I need to sit down and think through. This includes budget development, wage and salary analysis and development of policies to put on the university web site. Anything where a quiet stretch of time helps, she explains.

Telework is not always a viable option for all types of HR jobs. I dont know that a full-time telecommute would be workable, Hoehne acknowledges. I think you still need that face-to-face contact on a regular basis.

Is It Right for You?

To be sure, not all HR positions lend themselves to telecommuting, and those that do may not work on a full-time basis. But, surprisingly, telecommuting experts say even solo HR practitioners and those with heavy administrative duties still can work out a productive arrangement.

If a manager knows how to manage people and projects, then theres no reason why portions of HR cannot be in a telecommuting environment, says Carole Stein, currently president of JUMPSTART Enterprises Inc., of Plantation, Fla., who also built a company called, a subscription-based, online HR reference source, where everyone telecommuted. A benefits specialist, recruiter or payroll person does not necessarily have to work on-site full time, adds Stein.

Its not so much a question of, Is this job or functional area suited to telecommuting or not? says Gil Gordon, a Monmouth Junction, N.J.-based consultant who advises corporations on telecommuting policies. The question is, Are there one to three days worth of work in this job that can be done as well or better from home? For example, compensation and benefits jobs are very information-oriented and could be done at home using a computer, says Gordon, who worked for 10 years in HR at Johnson & Johnson. And because many applicants are comfortable sending resumes via e-mail, some recruiting-related tasks lend themselves to telecommuting, Gordon notes.

Despite HRs telecommuting potential, it is clear that a distanced approach will not work for all HR jobs. There are HR issues where people have problems and they need to come discuss them with you, Stein admits. If the HR person is a telecommuter, You cant run to somebodys office to talk it over.

This is especially true for HR professionals in employee relations and employee assistance programs. You cant predict when that person is going to be sought out by an employee with a problem. And when they are, that contact needs to be face to face, says Gordon. Contact through a video screen or via e-mail will not do the trick, he adds.

In addition to looking at the type of job in terms of telecommuting suitability, HR should look at the nature of the job to consider more flexible options, Gordon advises. The nature of some HR jobs or projects is cyclical, which could suggest a telecommuting schedule based not on days per week, but on a per-month or even per-quarter basis to better match the workflow.

Gordon cites development of training courses as an example. In the initial and final phases, the course developer must interact with internal clients and experts to define objectives, tasks and outcomes. But theres a huge piece in the middle that is heads-down, grind-it-out development of the content, Gordon says. It makes sense to allow that middle portion of the project to be completed through telecommuting.

The work must be portable, Gordon agrees. Whatever you need to do the work for however many days must be packed up and taken home or must be accessible over the telephone line.

Like every telecommuting candidate, you also must consider whether you like the idea of working alone. For HR professionals, who tend to be people people, this point is particularly salient.

Joyce Corley, PHR, telecommuted full time for three years as an HR analyst at a large international accounting firm. Corley did not seek out her telecommuting situation; it was pressed on her due to lack of office space at the firms Philadelphia office. Corley says her situation worked very well for me because Im the type of person who, if I have something to do, I do it. Corleys job involved developing affirmative action plans, producing overtime analyses, biweekly personnel summaries and exit interview assessments for 12 of the firms offices.

But, in the end, the loss of human interaction proved too much. The downside [of telecommuting] was losing the people contact, recalls Corley. I think most people in human resources are people-oriented and energized by people. I enjoyed it while I did it, but I was very glad to get away from it. She now works on-site at WhiteHat Data Services in Tempe, Ariz., as a full-time HR manager.

Human Barriers

One of the biggest obstacles, HR telecommuters say, is convincing your internal customers and your boss that you still can do your job with a reduced amount of face time.

Face time is sometimes overrated, argues Catherine Roseberry, a telecommuter herself and expert guide for the web site Regularly scheduled meetingsperhaps on a biweekly basisor web-based conferencing can handle the issue of getting together with colleagues, she explains.

But just because technology makes HR work possible from home does not mean people accept it.

The success of telecommuting depends on the type of environment you work in and what the corporate feeling is on technology, Stein says; thats because technologies such as fax, e-mail and teleconferencing need to replace traditional face-to-face contact. Her staff members were widely scattered geographically and met in weekly conference calls and online staff meetings, while also getting together in person once a month.

In addition, HR telecommuters need to train employees to feel comfortable contacting them regardless of location. Early in her telework career, Corley says, a number of colleagues would call her at home for assistance but apologize, saying, I hate to bother you at home. Corley had to remind them, No, its OK. Im at work.

Linda Konstan, director of HR at the Denver-based American Humane Association, has trained her employees so they are used to calling her at home if they need her on one of her telecommuting days, which are not always scheduled in advance.

Konstan posts a sheet with little tear-off phone numbers on her office door for those who walk down the hall to see her, only to find she is not there. People are used to calling me at home, she says. But, she acknowledges, it did take about eight months to build the credibility and make sure I always answered their questions within a certain amount of time via phone or e-mail.

Once you build the credibility, it doesnt matter where you are, she adds.

Konstan, who is basically a one-person HR department, says she cant recall an emergency situation in which she was unavailable. She has found that in many cases her colleagues are willing to wait with some questions if necessary.

Theres some customer education that has to go on, notes Gordon. If employees have questions related to filling out health insurance forms or other paperwork, HR could use the company intranet to post standard sample forms, eliminating the need for an on-site person to explain it. You can show people how to do it without the personal intervention, Gordon adds.

Another option is to identify a backup person in the office. Konstan says her colleagues know that they can take insurance-related questions to the payroll manager. She also has made clear that there are certain questions they should not take to the payroll manager. In terms of hard decision-making, they dont go to her, Konstan says.

Dont Replace Yourself

But sometimes designating an on-site backup person can backfire.

Amy Spalek was HR director at the Masonic Home, a Richmond, Va.-based retirement home with about 150 employees. After giving birth, she agreed to go back to her old job, working from home half the time. Spalek says she was able to work on policy manuals and conduct phone interviews from home. A full-time administrative assistant supported her in the office.

After a while, she found employees increasingly were taking their questions and problems to the administrative assistant. They didn't know me anymore because I wasn't in the office, Spalek says, although she noted she and her supervisor never heard complaints about her availability.

It didn't work out for me because I felt strongly that I needed to be there for the employees and be available during work hours, she says. Spalek continues to work part time on-site at Masonic in staff development.

Dont replace yourself by identifying a full-time, on-site substitute, warns Stein. You're either there or your'e not there.

A Solid Plan with Deliverables

To gain acceptance of the telecommuting concept in the HR environmentand overcome management resistancefocus on specific deliverables to be accomplished outside the office setting. When a telecommuting HR professional commits to providing specific end products by specified times, it also can give an HR manager a higher comfort level.

HR is a function. So you define the function and then you define the deliverables, says Stein. As long as you deliver what you say youre going to deliver when you say youre going to deliver it, then its fine.

For all parties, signing a specific telecommuting agreement is advisable, and it should address specific parameters. Its important for the telecommuter and the manager to agree on what the deliverable is going to be over a specified period of time, Gordon says.

Deliverables could include conducting a specified number of interviews with job candidates, developing an applicant list for a specified number of job openings or completing a compensation analysis for the engineering division. For telecommuting to work within HR, it should be fairly easy in most cases to specify those end-products.

A Catalyst for Redefining Jobs

A request to consider a particular position for telecommuting also could spur HR departments to think more creatively about job structure, Gordon says. The department may discover that some job responsibilities can and should be broken off from others and converted to telecommuting.

When Gordon was working in recruiting for Johnson & Johnson in the early 1980s, he revamped the recruiting process so responsibility for reviewing resumes and initial screening phone calls to prospective employees was shifted to administrative-level HR employees. Removing these tasks from the recruiting process freed up time for recruiters to focus on other higher-level tasks. The first phase of that process clearly would lend itself to telecommuting, he says.

Because HR often is involved in developing companywide telecommuting policies, having HR staff members who telecommute can provide valuable insights. Konstan notes she used her own experiences to help her develop a telecommuting policy for her employer. It requires a signed agreement that includes a specific schedule and initial trial period.

The reality is that telecommuting arrangements are always on trial, Konstan adds. In the end, telecommuting is a trust, credibility and respect issue. If it works, the employer gains a more focused and productive HR professional who may end up working even more hours at home than he or she did in the office.

Its the nature of the HR field; you tend to be anal and worry, Konstan jokes. So you make a great telecommuter.

Charlotte Garvey is a freelance writer, based in the Washington, D.C., area, who reports on business and environmental issues.
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