Telecommuting gains support

Sylvia Porter

January 29, 1991|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1991, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

You work at home and communicate with the office by computer and telephone. (Or you'd like to.) It's called telecommuting.

In the past, those of you who worked at home encountered barriers, and you still do, such as zoning and taxes. Are you conducting business in a residential area? If you have the option of commuting to a conventional business office, can you take the home office deduction on your tax return?

Now many of these barriers may be swept away. Why? Credit the environment and the war. At first the connections may seem strained, yet the Environmental Protection Agency has come up with some compelling statistics. If 5 percent of the workers in Los Angeles did their work at home, nearly 50,000 tons of pollutants would be eliminated from the atmosphere there each year. That's just from the reduced use of automobiles. More than 200 million miles of travel would be eliminated, saving as much as 10 million gallons of fuel.

The telephone companies, long the leading advocates of telecommuting, now have an ally in the federal government. All are trying to find ways to make it easier to telecommute. The federal departments of Transportation and Labor and the General Services Administration have joined the EPA in an organization called Telecommunication Solutions for America (TSA).

"There is no reason telecommuting can't become a reality, and soon," says Rich Thoma, who set the wheels in motion for the organization, which he heads. "The technology is all here. We just need to do it."

Consulting firms estimate that more than 20 million Americans already do some work from home offices, about one-sixth of them full-time.

TSA is seeking ways to encourage telecommuting, by promoting it and doing what it can to help make the process easier. As a start, each member organization has pledged to employ

telecommuting in its own operations wherever possible.

On the face of it, the task should be easy. An employee whose physical presence isn't absolutely essential could do his or her work at home, with the computer hooked up to the main office, wherever it may be. When AT&T pioneered telecommuting, it recognized that much of its work already was being done in offices where the employee interrelated with other employees on another floor or across the world without ever leaving the desk.

The work gets done. In fact, studies of home offices suggest that both the amount of work and its quality increase when the employee doesn't have to face morning and evening commutes.

These same studies established that telecommuting is effective only among those who are self-starters, who are not surrounded by distractions at home, and whose work doesn't require face-to-face interaction with co-workers.

There are some issues that need to be resolved between workers and their employers. For instance, telecommuting may require a second phone line. Who picks up the tab? And some managers may feel their authority is weakened with the absence of those who work under them.

It's true, too, that a widespread movement away from centralized offices could have unimagined economic ramifications. Those are among the issues the TSA is likely to address in the coming months. But telecommuting could turn out to be a big money saver. Plus, companies that have offered the telecommuting option to employees report that those employees seem to be happier. It has been one way for companies to keep valued employees during long pregnancy leaves. Other employees have been coaxed out of retirement through a work-at-home offer.

The income tax issue continues to be a serious concern for home office workers. If telecommuting takes off the way TSA believes it will, new tax law regulations may follow.

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