For all its advantages, 'telecommuting' is slow to catch on with employers

September 26, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

Every morning, you can see thousands of them, one to a car, clogging the Beltway as they drive to an office to make phone calls and type at a computer -- work they could do just as easily at a home office.

That's changing. A handful of Maryland employers, from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to the Montgomery County government, are experimenting with "telecommuting," allowing employees to work at home, in offices equipped with computers and telephones.

And more employers are likely to follow soon because of reports like a recent AT&T survey that found that telecommuting boosts productivity, makes workers happier and cuts companies' space costs.

For some, though, telecommuting's progress in Maryland is as frustratingly slow as rush-hour traffic. The drive to allow workers to commute to their jobs on electronic highways has been slowed by worker and manager mistrust, they say.

"You'd think it is a no-brainer to see the benefits of telecommuting," said Pam Tucker, founder of the Hunt Valley-based Telecommuting Inc. consulting firm.

But the changes needed to make telecommuting succeed are difficult for both workers and managers, said Ms. Tucker, who founded the firm after her own telecommuting experience failed because of isolation from bosses and colleagues.

"It is hard for corporate America to change management styles," she said. "Managers feel they have to see people they supervise instead of measuring results. . . . And unions have a hard time accepting it" because of fears that isolated home workers will be exploited.

Those concerns haven't slowed the nationwide boom in telecommuting. The number of Americans working at least part time from home offices has increased from 2.5 million in 1988 to 7.6 million this year, according to the New York-based Link Resources Corp.

Marylanders can see the change in Montgomery County, where some government workers are participating in a 3-month-old telecommuting pilot program, and at BG&E, which will launch a 30-worker experiment next week.

In addition, the federal government plans a compromise arrangement -- building "telework" centers in Hagerstown and Charles County. The offices will be equipped with computers and phones linked to Washington so government employees who normally commute to the capital can work close to home.

As personal computers become cheaper and better, and companies look to cut costs and boost productivity, telecommuting will grow even faster, Link says.

Another factor that may help clear the logjam of corporate hesitancy: an anti-pollution law requiring employers to reduce air pollution caused by commuting. Link predicts that the number of telecommuters will jump past 11 million -- to include 9 percent of American workers -- by the Clean Air Act's deadline for employers of Nov. 15, 1996.

One company that might change is McCormick & Co. William C. Hart, manager of information services, has been pleased with results after he has allowed computer programmers to work at home because of family emergencies. But McCormick doesn't permit regular telecommuting.

"It is a different idea, and I think that people just kind of back away from it," Mr. Hart said, adding: "The laws are changing. . . . And that will raise the issue."

McCormick's attitude is typical of Maryland employers -- they'll allow some workers to telecommute during family emergencies but are unwilling to set up a formal program.

Only one major employer -- Bell Atlantic Corp. -- has a widespread telecommuting program. The phone company allows its 16,000 managers in the region to telecommute if their job doesn't require their presence in the office.

Bell Atlantic's year-old program shows the benefits -- and pitfalls -- of telecommuting. For Kathy Hentz, a claims supervisor, telecommuting from her Arbutus home has been terrific.

Because she visits her downtown office only once or twice a week, she saves about four hours weekly in commuting time. She often can schedule work to be free before and after school for her three children. And she has saved hundreds of dollars a month on expenses, from parking to nylons.

"I used to pay $90 a month to park," Ms. Hentz said. "And it has been so long since I've been to a dry cleaners, I don't know how much it costs to have a suit done."

Instead, Ms. Hentz works in jeans and T-shirts in her garage-turned-office. The biggest drawback: the tendency to overwork.

Her husband has his own desk in their home office, and they often find themselves silently poring over their files at night and on weekends. "My husband and I were just talking about it," she said. "We said, 'This is romance -- sitting back to back to each other?' "

Telecommuting has been great for Bell Atlantic, said Al Berman, Ms. Hentz's boss. Participants are handling more cases than they did when working downtown. Absenteeism has plummetted: The six telecommuting claims supervisors called in sick a total of four days in the past two years. And the division has slashed its space needs by about a third.

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