Telecommuting still works for Cities Management

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April 22, 2013
By: Shengying Zhao//Murphy News Service-University of Minnesota
Shengying Zhao//Murphy News Service-University of Minnesota

Jenni Pederson starts her day by getting a cup of coffee, checking her email and voice mail, communicating with co-workers and following up with her clients.  She spends much of her afternoons creating reports for the clients of the residential property management company where she works. 

It can be busy, fast-paced work – and little of it happens in the office.

Pederson is an association manager at Cities Management, a company that allows 40 percent of its 53 employees to telecommute. Telecommuting is the practice of working from home using a computer.

While the tech-based giants Yahoo! and Best Buy that rely heavily on online technology recently started to eliminate telecommuting for their workers, Northeast-based Cities Management continues to allow employees to work from homes or cars or coffee shops, a practice it has used for 10 years. The system works because the company trusts the integrity of its employees, said President Traci Lehman. Telecommuting also allows employees to spend more time at the town homes, condominium cooperatives and single-family home communities that they manage, Lehman said.

Employees at the company telecommute every workday except Tuesday, which is when they come to the office for staff meetings or employee training.

Established in 1982, the company has instituted telecommuting as one of its many “going green” practices, which started with formation of the company’s “green committee” in the early 1990s. Telecommuting reduces the need for office space and associated energy costs. Less driving to the office reduces pollution and fuel usage. Because employees communicate mostly by computer, they use less paper.

That ultimately creates a culture that reflects the key corporate values — “innovation and sustainability.”

“Cities Management prides ourselves in being innovative, and it’s important to stay ahead of curve,” Lehman said.

The idea behind Yahoo! and Best Buy’s restrictions to telecommuting were that working together in the office would result in better collaboration and innovation.

Employees from Cities Management think differently. “We regularly check emails and send instant messages to share information with each other, consult each other for what works and what doesn’t for the properties we are managing,” Pederson said. Through activities such as regular meetings and continuing education courses for managers, she is able to foster efficient collaboration and good relationships with co-workers, she said.

Lehman said telecommuting also allows employees to have more balance and efficiency with their work.

“They can work in a coffee shop, on-site or in a car,” Lehman said.

It also enables the company to recruit and retain high- quality employees that it would not otherwise, she said. It has decreased employee turnover from 20 percent or 30 percent to less than 5 percent annually, reducing the expense of training new employees, according to a recent company statement released in the wake of the Yahoo! decision to reduce telecommuting.

Lehman said that telecommuting enables the company to “tap into a large pool of candidates.”

For example, they have people who live in Wisconsin working for them. 

Telecommuting also helps Cities Management save in other ways. It saves $100 in gas expense on average per month per employee, according to the recent company media release. Its electronic filing system has reduced office space needs by 20 percent.

Cities Management sets a good example of how environmental benefits can transform to economic advantages, said Kathryn Fernholz, executive director of Dovetail Partners, Inc., a nonprofit environmental organization based in Minneapolis.

“The bottom line is that there are still companies that don’t think enough about environment,” Fernholz said. “We encourage other companies to measure both the profit potential and environmental impact at the same time.”

Cities Management has developed measurements to oversee its employees’ efficiency and productivity by creating SenEarthCo and its adapted version, DIY Management, a new product for self-managed homeowner associations.

SenEarthCo (Sensible Earth Communities) is an online property management system created by the founder of the Cities Management, Kim Carlson, and CEO Mike Egelston in 1998. It allows people to work from home, from the road or at a client’s site through an online system that keeps track of the many property management functions that homeowner associations deal with.

With so many workers telecommuting on most days, Cities Management makes a point of holding events throughout the year to bring its employees together to inspire teamwork and creativity. It holds a mini-golf tournament in the office in which each department designs one mini-golf hole, and staffers split into teams and golf all nines holes through the office. “ I have a lot of fun. It takes our mind out of the work,” Pederson said.

Employees need flexibility to balance work and personal lives, Lehman said, and “happy employees lead to happy clients.”