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Workers' Compensation : Trends: Without ugly treks to the office after the Northridge quake, telecommuting employees are happier and more relaxed. And bosses are winning, too.

March 07, 1994|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The moment he clicked on the TV news the morning of the Northridge earthquake, Tony Davies knew he was in trouble. The Antelope Valley Freeway--the lifeline from his Palmdale home to his job 42 miles away in Mission Hills--was a wreck.

"I thought, 'Uh-oh, this is going to be incredibly terrible.' And it was. It took three hours to get in the first day."

Davies, a data-input clerk for GTE, resigned himself to life in his 1987 Toyota Corolla for the foreseeable future.

But it didn't work out that way. Davies--who requires only a computer, modem and telephone line to do his job--has become a part of the much heralded telecommuting generation. Futurists have been promising it for years: Millions of Americans would "commute" by walking into a spare bedroom equipped with a computer or by driving a short distance to a telecommuting center.

But until Jan. 17, this widely touted revolution appeared to be more of a blip on the workplace radar, growing at a rather leisurely pace.

The 6.8 quake has hastened the pace of change.

GTE, for example, has converted a switching center in Lancaster to a satellite work center for almost 150 employees who live in the Santa Clarita Valley. Working around the clock, the company installed office furniture, computers and lighting, and added a room for employee breaks, a microwave oven and parking facilities.

As if a wand had been waved, post-quake commutes suddenly melted from three hours to 30 minutes or less. Says Davies: "When they asked us if we wanted to work in a satellite center closer to home, everybody sort of screamed, 'Oh, yes. Absolutely.' And they had it up and running in less than a week. I was stunned."

"It was like the reprieve from a death sentence," says Terry Morgan, a customer care supervisor. With his wife, Norene, also a GTE supervisor, he was spending six to seven hours a day "just going back and forth" and wondering how much longer they could handle the stress.

"Now everybody is a lot happier--very relaxed and attitudes are great," he says. "I get a lot more productivity out of my people. I believe it's an excellent model."

Although the concept of telecommuting has been around for a long time, it has generally been identified with working at home alone--usually a day or two a week, says Steve Wright, the GTE program manager who oversaw the project to establish the new center. "Management has traditionally resisted letting too many people out of sight at one time," he adds.

Now, he says, GTE is hearing from a lot of companies curious about satellite centers. "The earthquake forced us to acknowledge that there is something not right in the way we go to work in Southern California. Everybody is re-evaluating this."

There are essentially three ways businesses can let their employees telecommute, says Jack Robertson, marketing manager for Pacific Bell. They can have people work at home by dialing into a database, lease work space in corporate telecommuting centers for multiple customers or set up company satellite operations.

There is a post-quake surge of interest in all three, Pacific Bell and GTE representatives say. Both companies are advertising their telecommuting services--such as voice mail and additional lines for modems and faxes--in newspapers and on radio, and they offer information hot lines and incentives, such as waivers of some equipment installation charges.

Reaction from workers and businesses has been so favorable ("We'd taken over 2,500 phone calls last time I looked," Robertson says) that both companies have extended their earthquake-relief telecommuting packages through March.

"I've been beating the drums for 21 years and now I am an overnight success," says Jack Nilles, whose JALA International consulting firm specializes in telecommunications. His daily incoming phone calls have jumped from 10 to 40 since Jan. 17, he says.

Nilles, who coined the word telecommute 20 years ago, says the fundamental reason telecommuting hasn't caught on is, "It scares the hell out of management. It's the loss-of-control problem: 'How do I know they're working if I can't see them?' "

*

But the realization that people cannot work as well when they spend six hours a day in their cars has shifted managerial priorities.

The Antelope Valley Telebusiness Center, which opened a year ago in Lancaster as a county-funded pilot project, shot from 60% occupancy to 100% after the earthquake. "We were inundated with calls," says Suzette Cecchini, director of the center, which leases offices and individual work spaces stocked with computers, modems, business software, phone lines and fax machines.

"I'm sorry it took an earthquake to generate this interest. We think it's the wave of the future," she says.

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