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Telecommuters Still Feel Pull of Office


If you had believed the rosy predictions a decade or more ago, telecommuting surely should have overtaken the nation by now.

After all, it was the panacea for a variety of critical social, economic and environmental concerns. By simply allowing employees to work from home, we could, in one fell swoop, reduce smog, traffic congestion and corporations' need for expensive office space while simultaneously increasing quality family time, job productivity and workers' own sense of freedom and empowerment. Could anyone have dared ask for more?

Actually, as it turns out, yes.

Even though telecommuting is spreading steadily, it never has enjoyed the spectacular growth once envisioned. And even the people who have embraced telecommuting tend to do it, at most, just a couple of days a week.

What the optimistic early views of telecommuting heaven failed to take into account was the psychological trauma a consistent diet of long-distance work would produce. The dislocated feeling of employees left out of the office loop. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind reaction among their co-workers. The frustrations of bosses not knowing what their charges were up to.

"People are social beings with a visual orientation," says James E. Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an international outplacement firm in Chicago. "Social interaction plays a vital role at work. People gain energy from other people, relieve stress by venting, solve problems and have fun."

So, instead of being viewed as an either-or proposition--either at home or at the office--companies and employees are using telecommuting as a part-time alternative.

"I get worried about people trying to telecommute full time," says Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant in Monmouth Junction, N.J., who has been tracking the phenomenon for the last decade and a half. "If you're at home full time, you get disassociated from your peers. You go 'native.' It's the same thing that happened to missionaries. And it's the reason they were periodically brought home."

Even the definition of telecommuting has changed in the last several years to reflect its more limited ideal usefulness.

According to one recent estimate, there are 11.1 million U.S. employees who telecommute, a classification defined by the industry as working at home a minimum of two days per month.

The number of so-classified telecommuters has been growing at a rate of 15% per year for the last five to seven years and is expected to reach 23 million by 2000, according to Jack Nilles, a Los Angeles consultant who has specialized in telecommuting issues since the 1980s. (These counts do not include the growing army of the self-employed whose at-home work would certainly qualify them for inclusion in the ranks of the "telecommuters.")

At AT&T Corp., among the first big U.S. corporations to embrace telecommuting, 31,000 workers (or a whopping 47% of the company's domestic management force), spend an average of just six days a month working from home. A significantly smaller group, 5,000 employees, work exclusively from home or travel so much that they are classified as having "virtual offices."

Even with a relative few number of days spent at home, AT&T encourages potential telecommuters to take up to seven training courses offered by the company and expects each worker selected for the program to make an extra effort to stay in contact with the goings-on of the office while he or she is working from home.

The city of Los Angeles, which employs about 33,000 people, has about 500 workers formally enrolled in its telecommuting program, which generally limits at-home days to about one per week. However, at any given time, says program administrator Bruce L. Roberts, an estimated 1,000 additional workers are believed to informally spend a day or two working from home to catch up on paperwork or find respite from ringing phones.

One of these employees is Pilar Scott-Walker, a 30-year-old account clerk in the office of Rideshare Program Administration. After joining the office a year ago, Scott-Walker started working from home on the one day each month that must be spent reconciling the office's accounts from the previous month.

"It just makes so much more sense to bring the work home and get it done in the quiet of the house," she explains.

However, as for so many other telecommuters, the real benefit for Scott-Walker, who normally spends more than an hour and a half each day traveling the 66 miles round-trip between City Hall and her home in Sylmar, is the amount of family time the at-home schedule creates at critical parts of the day.

Rather than rushing her three children to their day-care centers by 6 a.m. and rushing back to pick them up by 6 p.m., on that one day per month she's at home, Scott-Walker drops the children off at 9 a.m. and retrieves them sometime in the afternoon. This schedule allows her to spend extra time with the children before they go to bed and she finishes her assignments.

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