Thursday, May 11, 2006

Telecommuting - One solution for working parents?

Telecommuting can be, in some cases, a way for a new parent to continue in a job when a child is very young and child care is horrendously expensive. If you don't know this already, child care is much, much more expensive for a baby than for a toddler. The younger a child is, the more expensive is the child care. This makes sense because you have to have fewer children per care-workers as the children are younger.

Telecommuting is not always possible. Sometimes, the solution must simply be a more flexible schedule. I hope your employer will (and can!) be supportive if you ask for a more flexible schedule. Do realize, however, that if you work in circulation for instance, the core of that job is BEING THERE and being ON TIME.

Telecommuting, if it is possible, can be a good solution for employees with young children, transportation issues, or other reasons to desire flexibility. It can also be a benefit to the employer if the workplace is overcrowded. I have experimented with telecommuting for different positions in the library. It has worked only sometimes. It varies by the individual, and it varies by the position.

The individual must be a very organized, self-driven person and honest, too. If you are likely to sit down and watch TV instead of working through the stack of invoices, you are not going to be a good candidate for telecommuting. If you have a husband or child who do not understand that you are working during the hours of 9 AM - 5 PM for instance, that will also be a problem. You are at work, even though you are at home.

Likewise, the tasks that can be done from outside the library are limited. Ideally, you want something that measures the work by getting done. I mean, you have a project that is measurable, and it has an end date, and you can measure the quality of the work done. You know if the employee working off-site has put in the time on your project, and there is no question for human resources whether the person really worked the hours reported.

There are also literal limits to what can be done from home or off-site because you either need resources (like reference materials or files or other people to work with) or because you need the person on-site because new jobs arise and you need to take the individual off the special project and reassign them to the new task, pronto. This last has been a real issue for departments when we have allowed telecommuting because the remaining employees carry an unfair burden as new tasks arise, not only completing the new tasks but also the original tasks while telecomuter X is at home, peacefully working on the project that stayed the same size. If this happens too often, it can create a morale problem.

So, what kinds of work have we done with telecomuting? Our government documents librarian telecomuted for a while, 2 days a week. She made herself available by telephone for documents reference questions, and we found she was actually more quickly available from home than in the stacks. She took home projects and worked on lists of acquisitions to match to shipping lists. She labeled, cataloged and created lists of documents to give away. She also worked on e-mail and maintained web pages. This worked the best of any of our telecommute projects. This librarian was very organized and very, very self-driven.

We have had an acquisitions librarian who was fairly successful with the same sorts of tasks telecommuting 2 days a week. We have had a copy cataloger who telecommuted 2 and sometimes 3 days a week. She mostly has worked on cataloging, creating acquistions lists, and a few special projects. It has not been as successful, and is being phased out. We have had an acquisitions assistant who has telecommuted for a year, and, though he has been very diligent, it has been less successful. This is the situation wehre new tasks arise in the course of a telecommuting day, and the telecommuter cannot be reassigned. It is not his fault, but the supervisor cannot expect him to begin a new task because he does not have access to the needed files at home. So unfair burdens fall on the rest of the department. Fortunately, the department itself has not been angry about the situation. But others around the library have been jealous of telecommuters at different times. It can cause a great deal of jealousy.

How did we decide what kinds of tasks might work for telecommuting? We thought both about the resources needed, plus what needed to be done for the department and library. Answering reference questions by telephone or e-mail using only web resources could conceivably be done from home. But that reference librarian would not have access to any of the many reference materials that are ready to hand here by the offices or reference desk. They might also have difficulty if the web connection were down that day. A cataloger or copy cataloger can work on many tasks from home, again, dependent on the connection they have. The library may pay for a connection upgrade if the telecommute agreement is going to be longer than a brief experiment. Another good task for telecommuting could be special projects for acquisitions. Working through piles of invoices to enter them into a computer system; double-checking invoices against a list or a database; these are two examples of tasks that could be done at home.

I love the idea of creating a workplace that is more supportive of the employees and the families they live in. I don't always manage to achieve it. Sometimes it absolutely backfires. But we have to keep trying things out, to create a better society and a better way to work. Technology makes it easier and better to do this. When I was young, I had an ambition to be a beach librarian. Maybe one day, there will be beach librarians!

Look! It turns out there ARE beach librarians. This picture is Kennebunkport public library beach and books day!

No comments: