The ranks of telecommuters rose from 7.6 million in 2004 to 12.4 million in 2006. According to a report by WorldatWork (worldatwork.org) — a Scottsdale, Ariz., nonprofit association helping professionals with compensation, benefits, and work-life issues — the sum total of "teleworkers" (both employed and self-employed) working remotely at least one day per month rose from 26.1 million in 2005 to 28.7 million in 2006.

Telecommuting, or teleworking, can take several forms and doesn't necessarily mean working at home. "It can also include working from hotels, satellite offices, Internet cafes, and working while traveling," says Rose Stanley, practice leader at WorldatWork. "Where there is technology, there is a higher potential for successful long-term teleworking," she adds.

What are the advantages to teleworking? For the employee it allows more autonomy on where, when, and how work gets done. And that may coincide better with the employee's personal commitments or obligations, such as attending a child's school event or perhaps taking an elderly parent to appointments. "Studies have shown that teleworkers tend to be more productive, whether it's because of a more focused environment or a personal responsibility to make teleworking successful," adds Stanley.

Where do engineers fit into the telecommuting world? We asked MACHINE DESIGN readers whether heir companies let engineers telecommute, and if so, what the guidelines were. John Andrews, an engineering manager in Towanda, Pa., says engineers are allowed to telework, "but there are no ‘guidelines' per se. The only guideline in place is: Get the work done. The measurement of that is left to managers."

Richard Faber, an operations manager in Minneapolis, says there are special circumstances that allow working from home. "When someone is under the intense pressure of a difficult deadline, it is often advantageous to have that person working from home, without the daily disruptions that can come from the workplace. In the end, the machinery we manufacture is not being built at home, and our engineers must be on hand to support that endeavor."

E. Erik Timothy, an engineering manager in Tampa, Fla., says he does not let engineers telecommute. "I do not see this in the future, either. Our products are far too hands-on and we move too fast to be away from the office. Our company environment is also small in feel, and the day-to-day interactions between departments are key to our success. Engineers, in general, can too easily become functionally isolated. It does not make sense to me to physically isolate them as well."

Stanley offers some general guidelines for success to companies considering teleworking. "You don't need a formal policy to make teleworking work. However, there are ways to encourage consistent consideration for teleworking as well as consistent messaging for those who telework."

The type of job and employee personality plays a large role in determining whether the employee is a good candidate for teleworking. A self-assessment list should include the following considerations:

  • Why do you want to telecommute?
  • Are there elements of the job that cannot be done remotely?
  • How will the manager evaluate success (metrics) and overall effectiveness?
  • How will the work be performed at the remote site?
  • What tools are needed?
  • How will the employee ensure security of company information at the remote site?
  • How will this affect the employee's coworkers?
  • How are the employee's organization and communication skills?
  • Is the employee willing to adjust scheduling for special circumstances or business obligations?
  • Is the employee responsible enough to complete work without direct supervision?
  • Will the employee arrange for appropriate dependent care during their telework hours?
  • Should there be a signed contract between employee and employer for this type of work?
  • Should there be a trial basis?
  • What will the employer reimburse as regular related business expenses?
  • How will team activities be accomplished remotely?
  • Will there be training to make sure managers are comfortable managing employees remotely?

Sometimes telecommuters are passed up for promotion because of their out-of-the-office status. To avoid this, "Devise ways to make your presence known," says Stanley. Let your supervisor know you still want to be considered for future progression within the organization and find ways to let him and others within the organization see your work ability. Take on special projects or cross-functional team projects that let you be seen in several different settings. Demonstrate that your work is valuable to the organization. Have your manager put specific goals in an annual performance review demonstrating the ability to progress within the organization as well.

How many engineers are telecommuting?
Find out if your colleagues are working away from the office and what the guidelines are at their companies. Visit forums.machinedesign.com and scroll down to Vicki Reitz's blog. Click on the post called "" to see what they have to say and give us your thoughts.