Companies Help Employees Avoid Rush-Hour Woes

Companies Help Employees Avoid Rush-Hour Woes

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

Douglass Hall, president of the telecommunications firm Comsearch in Reston, Va., recently decided to move his company from the bustling technology corridor to a less prominent location on its outskirts.

Company finances were not the primary motivation for Hall's decision. The happiness of his 120 employees was.

Heavy traffic, legendary in the Northern Virginia technology hub, was making Comsearch employees late for work. At lunch time, it prevented them from running personal errands. At night, the congestion made getting home on time impossible.

"I began to hear from some people: 'The commute is getting longer, the traffic is just horrible,' " Hall said. "It really started to become an issue for everyone."

Hall doesn't begrudge the area's economic boom. The congested atmosphere, however, just isn't in keeping with his company's environment.

"It's not an anti-Reston thing, but we don't need to be in the middle of this for our business," Hall said.

Comsearch, a subsidiary of Allen Telecom Inc. of Beachwood, Ohio, designs, deploys and optimizes wireless networks worldwide for state and local governments and corporate clients.

The goal, Hall said, "was to find a more campuslike environment where we could create a nice, open, friendly, professional environment and a nice environment outside. It really helps when you take breaks. It reduces the stress factor."

Before making the decision to move, Hall studied Washington-area traffic patterns, looked at where each employee lived and drove to each possible work site at rush hour from various locations. He found that increasing numbers of workers were moving to the outskirts of the technology corridor, and the largest number lived in the Ashburn area.

Consequently, Comsearch early next year will be moving into a new, 70,000-square-foot building at the 281-acre Janelia Farm Technology Park in Ashburn, Va. The property, buffeted by Route 7, the Potomac River and the George Washington University Virginia campus, is secluded enough that traffic on the highway can't be seen or heard.

Comsearch employees will be able to take breaks, run errands at onsite businesses, work out in an adjacent gym, eat lunch outside and see deer from their windows.

Ironically, the move won't diminish the travel time for Hall, who lives in Manassas, Va. But a large number of his employees will see a reduction in commuting time ? as well as stress.

Sarah Moorehead, the firm's receptionist, can hardly contain her excitement.

"I can almost ride my bike to work when we move, " she said. "I can leave work at 5 o'clock and get home at 5:05."

Now, Moorehead said she gets to work "by the skin of my teeth." At night, she worries whether she'll be late to meet her two school-age children. "It's bumper to bumper, traffic lights," she said.

Relocation may be an extreme remedy for gridlock, but Washington-area firms increasingly are responding to employees' transportation troubles by developing policies and programs that will make the daily grind a little bit easier.

"In order to attract and retain employees, you have to work with people. In this market, I don't know how anybody could not," said Janice Hall-Balmer, internal communications director for systems integrator SRA International Inc.

Not long ago, SRA considered relocating its Fairfax, Va., headquarters. The firm decided to stay put after considering both employees' commuting patterns and the move's financial ramifications, she said.

Moving "wasn't a smart business decision, and it wasn't good for employees," she said. The company, however, allows flexible schedules, including work from remote locations. About 90 percent of SRA's employees take advantage of the policy, Hall-Balmer said.

In fact, Hall-Balmer is a good example. She works from home in Mount Gretna, Pa., two to three days a week. The other days, she's at the company's headquarters in Fairfax, about 2 1/2 hours away.

"The client comes first, but having said that, we try to offer as much flexibility as possible," Hall-Balmer said.

Some people come in as early as 4:30 a.m. and leave as early as 2:30 p.m. Others come in later and stay until 8 p.m. Some leave the office early, taking work home. Others, like Hall-Balmer, work at home a few days each week.

"I don't know how unique our setup is, but in terms of commitment to employees, it is unique," she said. "SRA really does care about employees and is mindful of employees' individual situations."

Some firms have an informal arrangement allowing alternative work habits.

For example, Pat Herrity usually gets to his office at 10 a.m., and sometimes he leaves early, choosing to answer his e-mail from home. The senior vice president and chief financial officer of Dimensions International Inc., an Alexandria, Va., IT consulting firm, Herrity said his schedule is sanctioned by his boss, but it's not the result of an official company policy.

"I'm more efficient when I work from home. I'm not wasting an hour and a half on the road, only 40 minutes," said Herrity, chairman of the Northern Virginia Technology Council's Transportation Committee. "It's not the solution to our [traffic] problems, but it's part of the solution," he said.

San Diego-based Science Applications International Corp. gets its Northern Virginia employees off the road another way. Last October, the systems integrator started a shuttle service from the Dunn Loring Metro station to four locations in Tysons Corner, Va.

After a slow start, use of the service has grown steadily to about 214 riders per week, according to facilities manager Carol Lyons.

Financial analyst Sheila Randolph used to drive to work from her home in Maryland, a trip that took 50 to 80 minutes. Now she hops on the Metro, spends a "relaxing" 60 minutes reading the newspaper or a book, and takes a five-minute ride on the shuttle at the other end of the line.

Also helpful ? and popular ? is a company subsidy, new in July, that helps cover commuting costs. Employees who take mass transit are reimbursed up to $65 a month by SAIC, and employees who bicycle or walk are paid $25 a month. About 250 people ? 150 more than anticipated ? are participating.

"It helps a lot," said Randolph, who has seen her monthly commuting costs cut by about $42 a month.

While employers said their efforts give workers more time at home and less stress on the road, they also know accommodating workers' needs is good for business.

"When [employees] know you care, you gain a lot of respect, loyalty and dedication to a company. It helps you retain the types of people you really want," Hall said.

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