Working from home has been a blessing for Sheryl Day, especially when spring rolls around.

A registered nurse, Day works for Simply Well, which manages wellness programs for employers and provides over-the-phone health consultation and coaching. At any given time, six of the nine nurses it employs in its Omaha office are working remotely.

"Instead of going to a break room, I can go and check on the lambs," said Day, who lives near Plattsmouth, Nebraska.

During birthing season, Day can message colleagues that she's about to take a short break, step away from the computer and help with a delivery if one of her dams is in trouble.

About 4.3 percent, or 6.3 million, of the nation's workers, age 16 and up, worked at home in 2013, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Nebraska, the number was 4.5 percent, or 42,000, of the state's workers, including about 13,400 in the Omaha area. Based on a variety of surveys, the number of home-based workers nationally has increased about 35 percent in the past decade.

Working remotely is particularly attractive to rural residents, who would otherwise face formidable commutes or, in some cases, have to give up their profession.

Technology, in the form of speedy Internet connections, mobile devices and sophisticated computer programs, has been the primary catalyst in moving workers out of the office and into basements, coffee shops and spare bedrooms.

WORKING REMOTELY

Job sectors most likely to employ remote workers:

Medical and health Customer service Sales Computer and IT Administrative Education and training Marketing

About one in 10 who worked exclusively from home were 65 and older in 2010.

Home-based workers in computer, engineering and science occupations increased by 69 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Mondays and Fridays were the most popular days to work at home for those who work at home and at another location.

Metro areas in the Southeast, Southwest and West had the largest percentage of workers who worked from home.

Sources: Flex Jobs, U.S. Census Bureau

On the employer side, new software allows the boss to eavesdrop on conversations, digitally monitor productivity and determine time spent on the clock.

Unlike the old days, when "home-based" work often revolved around piecework, such as sewing, stuffing envelopes or transcribing dictation, today's remote worker is likely to be a manager or professional.

For example, the Nebraska Medical Center employs a team of 15 consulting pharmacists who work part time from home. Together, they provide around-the-clock, real-time consultation to staff at small hospitals in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and other locations that don't employ a pharmacist or have only one on duty during the day.

"Everything is through technology," said Lisa Moffett, who is one of the team's pharmacists and works from her Omaha home. Moffett works 20 to 30 hours a week and provides hospital staff with recommendations about medications, drug interactions and related information.

Should she need to oversee a nurse mixing a medication, she watches via video cam. Working part time from home gives her the flexibility to manage the household and care for her six children. "It fills my need to be a clinical pharmacist without having to leave my family," she said. "It's a win-win."

To be sure, there are downsides to working at home, said Marcus Preasha, owner of Preasha Logistics and Consulting LLC in Bellevue.

Preasha, whose defense contracting company specializes in data analytics, often finds it difficult to "turn off" work. "I have an office in my basement," said Preasha, who works full time, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. "It's convenient. I save a lot of time being able to roll out of bed and go to work, but it's also a disadvantage because I work way past 5 o' clock."

But overall, working at home is more advantageous than not, Preasha said. "I can take 10 or 15 minutes and run an errand. I have peace and quiet. There's not a lot of distractions."

An estimated 45 percent of the nation's workforce, or more than 70 million workers, could be doing their current job at home, said John Challenger, citing a survey by Telework Research Network.

"There are so many jobs that are done wholly, or in part, by workers who sit in front of computers or on phones. Often those jobs can be done from home," said Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement and career consultant firm.

Still, many companies have been slow to embrace the model.

Just 9 percent of companies offer telecommuting to all employees, according to a survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas. An additional 40 percent of companies offer telecommuting options to some; 31 percent offer it on a case-bycase basis; and 20 percent don't offer the option, the survey found.

Many employers are wary of telecommuting, fearing that the potential for collaboration will be reduced and that employees will experience diminished ties to the organization. In other cases, employers cited the difficulty of "managing work flow, determining what wages should be and what hours should be worked and how they should be tracked," Challenger said.

Still others said the ability for some employees to work remotely created "animosity among those who were not permitted to telecommute," Challenger said.

But the biggest obstacle is "companies stuck in the old way of doing business ... where people are judged more on the amount of 'face time' than on the quantity or quality of their work," he said.

In early 2013, Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo, pulled the plug on remote workers. Other companies, including Best Buy, followed suit and overhauled their policies on remote workers. But that was two years ago, Challenger said. The current low unemployment rate coupled with a high "quit rate" has created a tight labor market, and "telecommuting is a good way to hold onto or attract good people," he said.

In a 2009 survey, nearly 80 percent of workers indicated that they would prefer to work at home.

The upside for employers? A happier, more loyal and more productive workforce, according to a survey by Nicholas Bloom and James Liang published last year in the Harvard Business Review.

And in some cases, reduced energy and real estate costs.

SimplyWell, for one, is able to maintain a smaller office because most of its nurses work at home. Nurse-patient conversations must be private, taking place behind closed doors. The office, which has five private rooms, would have to double in size to accommodate an on-site nursing staff.

The company requires that only two or three nurses be in the office, a requirement that employees rotate through, said Elaine Murphy, the company's director of health strategies.

"If we determine they can effectively work without assistance and they can guarantee a quiet work environment, we give our nurses the option to work from home."

Software allows Murphy to "see" when employees log on and when they're making calls. "Our expectation is you will be productive," she said, "but if you get up and throw your laundry in or brush your teeth, nobody is going to chastise you as long as you're being productive."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1142, janice.podsada@owh.com

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