Tanya Lippke lived in Florida, but missed home too much to stay. When she gave her notice, though, her boss wouldn’t accept it. So she moved back to Maine and worked
remotely the next 9 years for the Tampa-based market research company.
Now, she runs that business from her Lewiston home.
Lippke and her husband have 5-year-old twins. The job flexibility is great, but not always perfect.
“Not everybody knows I work out of a home office, so it’s kind of like shutting the door and putting the finger in front of your mouth during an important call and hoping that nobody hears in the background that someone just turned on ‘Dora (the Explorer)’ really loud,” said Lippke, 39.
Still, she can’t imagine going back.
Jason Levesque is growing his company. The 38-year-old CEO of Argo Marketing Group is hiring 100 people in the next three months for call centers in Lewiston and Pittsfield. To make room in the offices, Levesque’s offered senior staff the freedom to work from home and they’ve snapped it up.
It’ll work for many people at his company, but the Auburn man can’t see doing it himself.
“My personality is to be around people,” he said. “I started my company in my house, on my couch, and I don’t want to go back there. I think it might be bad luck.”
Nationally, 13.4 million people worked from home either full or part-time in 2010, according to the U.S. Census, up 4 million from 1997.
In Maine, 4.4 percent of workers telecommute in Bangor, 5.1 percent in greater Portland and just under 2 percent in Lewiston-Auburn.
“I think Yahoo will suffer,” said Bill Aube, 48.
He lives in Poland and works for Hewlett-Packard. Aube’s boss is in Oregon. His team is all over the U.S. and in countries like Austria, Australia and China.
“As long as I can solve your problem, I can be anywhere on the planet,” Aube said.
Work-at-home arrangements can work great for some occupations.
“As an employer, you look at productivity,” said Deb Whitworth, state director of the Maine State Council of the Society for Human Resources Management. “One of the best rules of thumb is to look at the functions of the positions first.”
Can XYZ be accomplished from home?
At Cianbro, the Pittsfield-based construction and engineering company largely needs people on-site. At Bath Iron Works, that’s also the case.
“Virtually everything we do here is related to defense activity and national security,” said spokesman Jim DeMartini. It doesn’t make sense to allow sensitive information outside the gates.
At companies like L.L.Bean and UNUM, it can work sometimes.
UNUM has 400 Maine employees who telecommute, positions like customer service, IT and enrollment, according to Marie Clements, assistant vice president of human resources.
About half of call center employees work from home.
“It’s a plus as a recruiting tool to help us recruit and retain a high-quality workforce in a competitive job market,” Clements said.
The company saves money renting extra office space and training new workers. Employees save on travel and work clothes.
“They also report better work-life balance and less stress,” she said. “All this leads to improved morale, which contributes back into the business in the form of higher productivity.”
L.L.Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said 250 employees in Customer Satisfaction work from home, a voluntary, and well-received, option in that department.
“This winter’s snowstorms made work-at-home a godsend for us in terms of handling customer calls,” she said.
It helps to keep expectations clear, Whitworth said. Several years ago during a spike in gas prices she helped one nonprofit craft a work-at-home agreement so employees could telecommute one day a week.
“The employee understood, when you’re working at home that doesn’t mean it’s a substitution for day care, it doesn’t mean that you get to do your laundry or start your dinner four hours in advance,” she said.
Her gut sense: More companies are giving it a try.
The news out of Yahoo “caused quite the stir in the HR community,” Whitworth said. “What I’m hearing is that this has taken workplace flexibility back a little bit, and people are starting to wonder about retention. Clearly the company is a good company to work for, but if you work for Yahoo, can’t you work for Google or Microsoft or Cisco?”
‘Right guy, right job,’ different state
Gisele Guerrette, a vice president in technology for TD Bank, has an office in the Bates Mill and one in her Auburn home. Home sees her more.
“If I have a spurt of energy at 4:30 or 5 when I wake up, then I work,” she said. “They have far more of me when I work from home than when I work in the office.”
At first, maybe too much.
“I’m type A, and working from home made me feel like I needed to be ‘on’ as much as I possibly could,” Guerrette said. “I really had to really reel it back and know that I could be successful 8, 9 or 10 hours a day without having to commit 14, 15, 16 hours a day.”
She likes having her fridge nearby, more quiet time to focus and the flexibility for errands.
Many of her TD Bank project teammates are in Toronto; they teleconference a lot.
Argo Marketing Group employs 230 people between Lewiston and Pittsfield. Sixty telecommute at least some of the time. With the 100 new hires, Levesque is looking for 30 to 45 people to join them.
“It’s about schedules, it’s about workers’ needs, what our clients’ needs are and really the finite capacity of our walls,” he said.
Workers answer inbound customer service calls. In addition to regular shifts, during a spike in volume Levesque sends out a quick text, “I need you now, please.” Available employees log in, take calls from home and might sign off an hour later; it’s more efficient than hopping in a car.
“By the time they get to work I might not need them,” he said.
Still, Levesque has concerns. “It’s a cultural shift, and I’m a firm believer in workplace culture. It’s hard to have lunch together when you’re not together.”
Three years ago, Kemp Goldberg Partners tried something new. The Portland advertising agency hired John Vincent as director of account services.
Vincent lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“It was the right guy and the right job,'” said David Goldberg, a partner and founder. “We had to sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re taking a little bit of a leap of faith here, sure. Let’s just make it work.'”
Vincent flies in every six to eight weeks. Back at home, he’s in the same town as the agency’s largest client, stopping in on them several times a week.
He keeps in touch with Maine staff by phone, email, text and Skype.
“It’s frequent contact throughout the day,” said Vincent. “We’re super close, not physically and geographically, but man, it’s about as close as you can be without being there.”
KGP already had a flexible, telecommute-as-needed policy before Vincent’s hire, something adopted after one year in business. At the end of that first year, Goldberg said the company had 38 percent turnover. Now, it’s 19 percent, something he credits in part to introducing flexibility.
In the last 18 months, the company’s also adopted a new unlimited paid time off policy. Far from abusing it, the average numbers of days off per person has dropped by five.
“There are things that come up in life that make it hard for some people to work five days a week in the office,” Goldberg said. “We don’t want to lose those people. We also do not want to have that as a roadblock to hiring somebody that we are really attracted to and vice versa.”
‘I don’t think I could go back’
When his three boys were young, Aube liked that he could attend their games and be a big part of their lives. Now that they’re grown, working at home feels more productive. As a manager for Business Escalations at Hewlett-Packard, a division that helps companies when they run into difficult tech issues, he teleconferences with his team at least once a month and travels once a quarter.
“If I feel like getting a three-mile run in, I can,” said Aube. “It allows me to plan my day. The problem is, you’re never off. Home is work and the two collide. That’s the drawback: You do have to know when to stop.”
He does miss office-space camaraderie and something as casual as grabbing a beer after hours with co-workers. Lippke, in Lewiston, has noticed that, too. It is harder to make new friends without that built-in network at the office.
“I’ll find sometimes that I really miss having coffee with a co-worker or chitchatting in between doing work or dropping things off at the printer,” Lippke said. “I can go an entire day without actually speaking out loud.”
She runs TFC Info, the former Florida company, and 2nd Wing Oxygen Bar, a traveling scented-oxygen business started recently with her husband.
After the twins were born, family helped out, she changed her hours and they avoided paying for daycare, a huge savings. If the family wants to leave early for something, like a camping trip, Lippke turns on her out-of-office message and they go.
For about every perk, though, there’s a trade-off.
“Parents are welcome at lunch (at school). I feel so lucky that I can go, whereas most people wouldn’t be able to leave their office,” she said. “But then I also feel a little bit unlucky during the summers when there’s no school and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I am going to be working at 10 o’clock, after they’re in bed, for hours because there’s no way I could get the work done.’
“But I don’t think I could go back,” Lippke said. “I don’t think I could do the commuting, the packing of the lunch or putting non-stretchy pants on.”
Thoughts on telecommuting, Yahoo and always answering the phone
“Employees see it as a perk: You can sit at your computer and not have on a full face of make-up and . . . getting your work done. I think besides it being seen as a perk, employers recognize that employees have more demands on them now than maybe employees of 20 years ago did.”
Deb Whitworth, state director of the Maine State Council of the Society for Human Resources Management
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“I personally have a hard time working from home because I like to have a nice separation between my work life and my home life. When I work from home those two worlds bleed into each other and I don’t feel quite as productive. But I know most of the rest of my co-workers do quite well with it and love having that option. However, I have to say as a dad to two small children, having that work-from-home flexibility comes in handy.”
Scott M. Gagnon, substance abuse prevention manager at Healthy Androscoggin, where staff can pick one work-from-home day each week
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“If the roads are impassable, we never go down. Like with (snowstorm) Nemo, the Post Office closed but we didn’t close, and that was extremely important. One of the reasons we were able to do that was because of our at-home agents.
“(At the same time,) I can’t tell you how many moms have come back to the workforce, ‘Oh, thank god, let me just talk to people and be around people.'”
Jason Levesque, CEO of Argo Marketing Group
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“At some phase of any employee’s life you’re going to have child-care issues, elder-parent-care issues, stuff pops up all the time. There’s all kinds of emergencies that require some (flexibility) to make it work. I think it’s really a family- and employee-friendly option that’s part of what the agency’s about. I think it’s a good thing. It kind of shows respect for employees and it treats people like whole people, not just work people.”
John Vincent, director of account services at Kemp Goldberg Partners in Portland, who telecommutes from his home in Michigan
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“When a big brand like Yahoo . . . (does) something so contradictory to what is the conventional wisdom, I think a lot of companies might pause and say, ‘Well, wow, they just sort of broke a ceiling there. Maybe we should look at ourselves, too, and see.’ I hope not, though. I don’t think that would be forward progress.”
David Goldberg, partner and founder of Kemp Goldberg Partners
* * *
“At a regular office, a 9-to-5 job, when your job is done at 5 o’clock you go home and it’s family time. But when you work out of a home office, it’s so hard not to check your emails 50 times. ‘Do I have more work to do tomorrow, what do I need to prepare myself.’ I’ll get phone calls at 9 o’clock at night. If I was in an office it would go to voicemail. But I’m like, ‘I’m a business owner, I can’t just let that go to voicemail.’ I end up answering it and then working for several hours.”
Tanya Lippke, owner of TFC Info and 2nd Wind Oxygen Bar