A Different Daily Grind

Changing technology and manage-ment attitudes are the key to promoting successful telecommuting programs

The temperature just hit 101 degrees -- in the shade. Traffic has inched along I-495 West, start and stop, for the last hour. The air conditioning vents are blowing out soup-warm air.

On such days, the much-hyped practice of telecommuting seems mighty sensible -- despite the sense of isolation telecommuters must face in the home office.

So new technology and old frustrations with the ever longer daily commute may finally be making the practice acceptable. That is especially true in the perennially clogged byways and highways of the Washington area.

Nationwide, the number of telecommuters is expected to grow from an estimated 9.1 million workers in 1994 to 15 million workers by 2000, according to data from New York-based FIND/SVP. "In 1994, in the Washington metro area about 276,000 people, or 6.5 percent of the workforce, telecommuted," said Linda Risse, co-owner of Fairfax-consulting firm, Synergy Planning Inc.

The anticipated surge in telecommuting will partly result from vastly improved technology for the home, office and networks, which should hit the market within two years, said David Goodtree of Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass.

For example, Carolyn Griffin, manager of computer training and user support, with the Alexandria-based Water Environment Federation, is able to telecommute two days a week because of software that lets her dial into the office and take remote control of her computer, or others on the network. Without the development of the software, her job could not be done from a remote location.

Yet, not all telecommuters need cutting-edge technology or expensive, high-speed telecom lines to link to their home offices, Risse said. Approximately 56 percent of local Washington metro area telecommuters, and 54 percent nationally, use such links, she said. The rest may just work on paper, while others may shuttle files between offices via a computer disk, she said.

The equipment a telecommuter needs will vary depending on their job responsibility, Griffin said. For example, she doesn't have a fax, but the ability to get into the network is essential. Another WEF telecommuter in human resources wasn't able to connect to the network for years, until Griffin set it up, but she had to have a fax.

So why would a company want to encourage telecommuting? Some, like Oracle Systems Corp., want to save money on real estate costs and increase productivity. Others see telecommuting as a way to retain valuable employees that for one reason or another simply can't or won't make the daily commute. Still, corporate conservatism remains a barrier. Many telecommuting experts don't cite technology or access to equipment, such as fax machines, as the largest impediment. Rather, they blame corporate and management philosophy that measures an employee's productivity by the time they spend in the office, not the quality of work produced.

Telecommute America, a nationwide initiative between private companies and federal agencies will challenge this philosophy head-on through a series of seminars and publications that will culminate with national Telecommute America week in October.

Management must realize that they will lose valuable employees if they do not offer flexible arrangements that meet employee needs, said Leslie Magerfield, director of human resources for the Water Environment Federation. "Telecommuting is not doing an employee a favor, it is a way to retain excellent and highly skilled people," she said. "We have the technology. Let's use it [to help employees meet their needs]," Risse said.

That said, telecommuting is not for all employees. The profile of the typical telecommuter would be a self-starter, not easily distracted, disciplined and conscientious -- in short, precisely the kind of worker a company would want, in the office or not.

In the Washington area, many other organizations, as well as a number of government entities, have launched telecommuting efforts. Bell Atlantic and AT&T have successful telecommuting programs and AT&T is a Telecommute America sponsor. Oracle has invested in laptops with wireless communications capabilities for all of its sales force and allows other employees to telecommute. A common telecommuting approach -- allowing individual supervisors to decide what suits them and their employees on a case-by-case basis -- is America Online's informal policy.

The federal government has set up five local telecommuting centers, with several more planned. Additionally, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments will be setting up centers.

A survey of 79 firms in the Fortune 1,000 found that people who work from their home one or more days a week made up only 11 percent of the workforce, Forrester's Goodtree said. "White-collar workhorses" -- people who spend a full day at the office then go home and dial into their office network make up 89 percent of telecommuters, he said. These people need the high-tech solutions offered by faster, standardized modems and software that lets a user take remote control of their workplace terminal, he said.

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