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New rules pave way for telecommuting

Van Do-Nguyen tries to get work done in her office, which is being upended to make way for new furniture -- just one in an endless list of workplace distractions, she says. The senior administrative analyst with the Department of Women's Studies and the Center for the Study of Women finds it easier to focus on complicated projects when she works at home two days a week. - Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
Van Do-Nguyen tries to get work done in her office, which is being upended to make way for new furniture -- just one in an endless list of workplace distractions, she says. The senior administrative analyst with the Department of Women's Studies and the Center for the Study of Women finds it easier to focus on complicated projects when she works at home two days a week. - Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
Van Do-Nguyen spends about three hours a day commuting to and from UCLA, but two days a week, the senior administrative analyst gets six hours of her life back by telecommuting from her home in Lake Forest, Orange County.
 
"I like my job, but if I had to do that drive everyday, I definitely would not be as happy," Do-Nguyen said. She's one of the many employees at UCLA already taking advantage of flexible schedules. With interest in telecommuting growing in recent years and the rise of gas prices, Campus Human Resources (CHR) has designed UCLA's first formal telecommuting guidelines. The recommendations envision employees with long commutes working at home one or two days per week if their supervisors approve their schedules.

Lazetta Smith, CHR's manager of policy services in the Compensation and Policy Services Department, drafted the guidelines and shopped them around to administrators, supervisors and staff.

"A lot of supervisors were asking for these guidelines, because they were getting more and more requests from employees wanting to work from home," Smith said.

It's not just about employees hoping to cut back on gas costs a day or two a week, although rising gas prices last summer definitely led more staffers to look into telecommuting, Smith said.

There are also societal trends at play. Baby boomers caring for aging parents need the flexibility to drive mom or pop to doctor appointments close to home. Gen-Xers have come to expect flexible work hours as a benefit, Smith said. And while telecommuting shouldn't replace elder care or daycare, it helps people juggle their schedules more effectively, Smith said, whether it means taking the car in for a tune-up close to home or picking children up from school on time.

"Some people won't even come to work at a place that doesn't have flexible or alternative work schedules," she said. But research shows that many employees will work more efficiently and often even longer hours from home than in the office, she added. It also improves employee morale, eliminates hours parked on balky freeways, and helps staff save money on everything from gas and take-out lunches to dry cleaning and car maintenance.

It's not just for the employees, acknowledged William Nelson, director of CHR's Compensation and Policy Services Department. "Certainly, to be a competitive employer, you've got to offer flexible work hours -- especially with the commute patterns and difficulty in getting to UCLA -- or you'll lose employees," he said.
 
There are also benefits to UCLA beyond recruitment and retention, such as the reduced carbon footprint UCLA can report to regulators when employees drive in to the campus fewer days per week.

"At some point, if all the alternative work arrangements stabilize, you can calculate how much more parking spaces are available, cut down on the cost of food production, maybe even figure out new trash patterns," Nelson said. "All kinds of things are created as a result of people coming to work. If people maintain productivity at home, the costs to UCLA go down."

Instead of spelling out strict rules, many of the new guidelines primarily remind supervisors of issues to consider, such as whether it is feasible for hourly employees to work out of the office, or who should pay for Internet access at the employees' homes.

"When we were getting feedback, managers said, 'Let us decide,' " Nelson said. "Like with the non-exempt employees, we originally recommended more strongly against allowing them to telecommute, because you need strenuous time-reporting. But the feedback from supervisors was, 'We'll figure it out. Let us decide.' "

It's unclear how many employees already telecommute. While some supervisors have been asking for guidance, other offices across campus have been making these arrangements for years, Nelson said.

Jenna Miller-Von Ah, a manager and graduate coordinator with the Department of Women's Studies, began telecommuting about five years ago, working from her home in Eagle Rock on Fridays instead of making the hour-and-15-minute drive to campus.

"I can do it four days a week, but not five," she said of her exhausting commute. "I love my job, but if this wasn't an option, I'd absolutely be looking elsewhere."

In the office, she knows her phone will ring, and people will drop by and interrupt her work. At home, Miller-Von Ah said she can focus. She works in the same office as Do-Nguyen, who also works with the Center for the Study of Women, and the two agree that they not only get a chance to sleep in a few extra minutes when they work from home, they also get more work done that way.
 
"Telecommuting requires self-management and self-discipline, but it's the only way I can work on complicated projects without interruption," Do-Nguyen said. "The only downside is that sometimes I get so focused that I forget to stop working. At least at the office, there's only eight hours to work before the vanpool leaves without you!"
 
Learn more:
Read CHR's telecommuting FAQs, review the draft guidelines and considerations, or download the sample telecommuting agreement.