Technology alone can't make people turn their homes into their offices

September 30, 1990|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,Cox News Service

"Telecommuting" is a little like the flying car.

Do you remember the flying automobile? According to the futurists of the 1950s, that's the way you were supposed to get to work this morning. You would have backed it out of the garage, unfolded the wings and -- somewhere between Maple Street and Main -- been airborne, high above the rest of the commuters.

Why isn't there a flying car in your garage? Not because of any failing of technology. Prototypes were built and flown. The flying car is missing because of people -- the way they think, live and work.

Around 1988, you may have begun hearing of an even faster way to get to work: telecommuting. Instead of driving to work, you would sit at your home computer, hit a few keys and connect to the office's big computer. Messages and chores would await. It seemed a logical idea and, again, the technology was there.

More people commute by computer than by flying automobile, but human nature may have gotten in the way again, at least temporarily.

"Bosses worry when they can't see you," Douglas McCabe of Georgetown University's School of Business Administration said. "They feel a loss of control. It's just not going to happen the way people thought."

The boss isn't the only one concerned that out of sight means out of mind: Some employees who dropped out of a telecommuting pilot project at American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in Los Angeles said they were afraid the boss wouldn't remember their faces at promotion time.

Truman Hartshorn, an urban geographer at Georgia State University, says telecommuting will become more popular as transportation systems become more overloaded. But he adds that it is too early to put the office on the endangered species list.

"Basically people need the stimulation that the workplace provides," he said. "But I do think more people will work at home on some days and report in to branch offices other days."

Body language and old-fashioned eye contact are two important business tools that telecommuters lose, he said. That's why even telecommuters will need branch offices for an occasional face-to-face meeting.

SG Telecommuting is a growing trend, even if it hasn't lived up to its

early press clippings

Some people are telecommuting without even knowing it. These are the employees who use their computer and telephone at home to solve a problem and avoid a trip back to town or to write a report on a Saturday. Their home computer buys a few more hours with their families.

That's how Marilynn Mobley became a part-time telecommuter.

She has two daughters, ages 1 and 5, and a full-time job in midtown Atlanta as a marketing program administrator for International Business Machines Corp. Besides the pressure of her work, there are demands on her as a parent.

A home computer lets her do some work from home. "It's a lot like my microwave," she said. "After a while, you wonder how you ever lived without it.

Not surprisingly, technology-driven corporations are in the forefront of telecommuting. Besides understanding the mechanics, they have many employees who work at jobs that rely heavily on computers.

There are some jobs -- such as computer programming -- where telecommuting is ideal. That's the way it is with Todd Blackburn. Almost every weekday, he sits at a computer terminal in the basement of his parents' home near Salt Lake City and starts his workday for Georgia-based National Data Corp.

"Most days I really don't notice any difference" from when he worked in the NDC office building in an Atlanta suburb, he said.

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