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Telecommuting Trend Hits Close to Home : Workplace: L.A. County leads nation in companies offering such programs. Research shows about 10% participation in Southland.

October 27, 1995|KAREN KAPLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It takes Carol Sparks, director of reimbursement for Burbank-based Summit Care, 20 minutes to get to work from her Costa Mesa home. Her secret? Landmark Executive Offices, a telecommuting center in Anaheim.

That's where Sparks goes to work at a computer, do paperwork, conduct correspondence and make telephone calls on behalf of her employer. Telecommuting allows her to work for the Burbank company, a long-term care provider, without giving up her Orange County digs or spending hours each day on the freeway. She makes the two-hour drive up to corporate headquarters only once a month.

"On the days that I drive to Burbank, I wish everyone telecommuted," Sparks said.

Telecommuting is not yet that widespread, but its popularity is steadily gaining. Approximately 10% of employees in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties telecommute at least one day a week, according to a 1994 study by a group that tracks commuting for the state. That translates into 126,000 people telecommuting each day in the five-county area, or 630,000 a week.

Telecommuting advocates were working to boost those numbers this week by celebrating National Telecommute America! Week, which ends today. Many telecommuting centers offered trial uses of their facilities free of charge, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan called on business executives to pledge to telecommute.

Employees who telecommute work from home or from a satellite office near where they live instead of traveling to the main office. The arrangement is ideal for workers such as Sparks who can do their jobs anyplace that has a computer, modem, telephone and fax machine. Telecommuting experts estimate that roughly 60% of all workers could do their jobs from a remote site.

Around the country, 8.4 million people telecommute on a regular basis, the New York research firm Link Resources estimates. Los Angeles County is home to more companies with telecommuting programs than any other county in the country, according to a 1994 study by Kosmont & Associates.

About 85% of telecommuters work from home, often for the express purpose of being close to their children. The rest work in telecenters such as Landmark Executive Offices, where companies can reserve desks and computers for about $20 a day. There are 20 telecenters in the five-county area, serving an estimated 100,000 workers, according to the Southern California Telecommuting Partnership, which is made up of city and county governments, AT&T, Pacific Bell, GTE, Northern Telecom and Intel. The partnership encourages telecommuting and raises money to build and operate telecenters.

Telecommuters say they appreciate being able to spend more time with their families and less on congested freeways. Air quality monitors say the fight against smog also gets a boost.

Studies show that telecommuters also save money. The savings come in many forms, the city of Los Angeles found last year. After comparing 250 city employees--including police detectives, auditors, city planners and secretaries--who telecommuted at least once a week to 250 who did not, the city found:

* Telecommuters were absent two fewer days per year than their colleagues.

* The city realized an $8,000 savings per telecommuter per year on costs ranging from energy consumption to workers' compensation claims.

* The overall demand for work space declined 30%.

"Telecommuters loved the experience because they felt they were more in control of their life, and their quality of life increased significantly," said Susan Herman, who runs the city's telecommuting program and is also chairwoman of the Telecommuting Partnership. "They were much more productive, and that made them feel great about themselves."

Of course, telecommuting isn't for everybody. One employee dropped out of the city's program because she spent too much time in front of the refrigerator; another quit because he couldn't concentrate amid the incessant squawking of his next-door neighbor's parrot.

But telecommuting coordinators say cases like those are the exception. After raising $2 million in federal grants and private donations, the Telecommuting Partnership is pressing ahead with plans to build its 19th telecenter in the Southland.

The centers offer cubicles and private offices equipped with computers, fax machines, photocopiers, voice mail and conference and training rooms. Some even have facilities for video conferencing, high-speed data lines and Internet access. Rents can be as low as $5 a month, and about 80% of the work spaces are in use each day, Herman said. Workers who use telecenters often go on to telecommute from home, once they realize they can set up a work space at the kitchen table.

So far the biggest obstacle to telecommuting is supervisors who don't like the idea of having their employees working where they can't see them. The telecommuting partnership distributes brochures to help managers adjust.

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