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For Workers, Telecommuting Hits Home

July 29, 1996|KAREN KAPLAN

Seven hundred thousand workers in the Southland are putting technology to work for them--at home.

They are telecommuters, and they spend at least one day a week working from home or a nearby tele-center equipped with all the comforts of the workplace. According to figures released this month by the Southern California Telecommuting Partnership, the number of telecommuters has increased 11% since last fall. The reason is technology.

"This has become a world in which we use technology to do things faster and more expeditiously, and now it's packaged in such a way that it's easier to bring home," said Susan Herman, executive director of the telecommuting group, which includes representatives from Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, along with five corporate partners.

Indeed, the partnership's survey found that 70% of people who telecommute from their homes own a PC, and nearly 30% supply their own equipment to make telecommuting possible. Nine out of 10 people who started telecommuting after the Northridge earthquake still do it, and 74% of telecommuters say they are unwilling to give it up, according to the survey.

Not every job is well-suited to telecommuting, but advances in technology are broadening the list, which already includes police detectives, secretaries and department managers.

For most telecommuters, a personal computer and a fax machine are necessary. With a modem, a worker can dial into a company's computer system and send and receive electronic mail. A high-speed integrated phone line provides enough bandwidth to keep a computer logged into a network and keep a telephone line or two free for regular voice calls.

At IBM, employees who telecommute are issued a Thinkpad laptop computer stocked with software, an additional phone line in their homes and a pager to keep in touch with the home office, said human resources researcher Jeff Hill, who works from home in Logan, Utah, 2,500 miles away from Big Blue's headquarters in New York.

Frank Short, a network engineer with TRW's Information Systems and Services division in Orange, said that newer software can run on more kinds of computer systems. That makes it easier for companies to implement telecommuting programs because employees can connect to the company's system using whatever kind of computer they happen to have at home.

And as more companies build their networks based on the standards of the World Wide Web, access by employees will be made even easier.

Most telecommuters say the ability to work from home helps them balance their work and family obligations. But for those inclined to work long hours, telecommuting can be quite a burden because it blurs the boundaries between work and rest.

Hill describes the downside this way: "Giving a workaholic a Thinkpad is like giving an alcoholic a bottle of gin."

Karen Kaplan covers technology and careers. She can be reached via e-mail at

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