Information highway eases workers' commute

November 14, 1994|By Capital News Service

HAGERSTOWN -- Every Monday and Wednesday, Ralph Silvestro puts on sneakers and jeans, leaving his suit in the closet.

Instead of commuting two hours to his noisy office in Washington, he drives 20 minutes to a quiet, isolated work space.

Seated behind his computer in a three-story building on the campus of Hagerstown Junior College, Mr. Silvestro takes part in a high-tech experiment.

The federal government hopes it will save taxpayers money, protect the environment and enable him to spend more time with his family.

The project is the Hagerstown Telework Center, which, since it opened in April, has been a hub for federal employees who have become telecommuters.

Telecommuting allows employees to stay at home or travel to a nearby center to do computer-based work that can be transmitted to their main offices.

As part of a $6 million, two-year pilot program, the federal government is providing its Western Maryland employees with a center that lets them avoid commuting one or two days each week.

There are 5,654 federal employees living within 30 miles of Hagerstown.

Thirteen workers from six government administrations share the center.

"This is an experiment to find out what works in terms of organization, layout, equipment . . . and to find out what people like and don't like about it," said Stan Kremp, manager of the center.

The center is one of four in the Washington area. The others are in La Plata, and in Fredericksburg and Winchester, Va.

Similar projects are being studied for 30 other cities nationwide that have strong concentrations of federal workers.

A second center may open in Hagerstown this spring to provide an additional 50 workstations, Mr. Kremp said. It will offer video teleconferencing and more team stations.

Mr. Silvestro, 37, a personnel management specialist for the General Services Administration, said he wishes he could use his center three or four times a week.

"I'm primarily work-driven, and by being here, I'm able to concentrate on what I'm doing," said the Martinsburg, W.Va., resident.

Phillip Baker, a GSA communication management specialist also participating in the project, pointed out the personal benefits.

"I'm now able to spend more time with my family . . . and taking part in community activities," said Mr. Baker, 45. "It definitely cuts down on the stress of the commute."

Mr. Baker, who normally travels two hours from Hagerstown to Herndon, Va., said he is able to get to work in 10 minutes every Wednesday and Friday.

Mr. Kremp described the project as a "win-win situation." The government saves money by reducing its need for office space and getting better output from its workers, Mr. Kremp said.

The program is also intended to help the area comply with the Clean Air Act, which requires lower levels of car emissions within the next few years.

In September 1996, Congress will have the option to devote more funds to the program or turn it over to private ownership, Mr. Kremp said.

If the program goes private, government and private-sector workers will be able to buy work space for a small daily fee, he said. "Right now we literally have people who are waiting to get in here," Mr. Kremp said.

The Hagerstown center has 10 shared workstations, including two team stations, which allow workers from the same agency to share space. Each station has an IBM computer, internal modem and software packages. The center also is equipped with a fax machine, a laser jet printer and a photocopier. It has a private conference room and a manager on site at all times.

The government was sold on telecommuting after seeing its success in the private sector, said Edward Weiner, a senior policy analyst for the secretary of the Department of Transportation.

Companies such as IBM and AT&T Corp. have reduced office size and increased output and worker satisfaction by allowing employees to work at home or at local centers, Mr. Kremp said.

Susan Fanelli, site services coordinator at the IBM work force mobility center in Cranford, N.J., confirmed the success of her telecommuting program.

"People are now able to drop their kids off for school and see them when they get home," she said.

On Sept. 21, AT&T invited 123,000 of its employees to spend the day working from their homes. Nearly 33,000 took part, said Al Wann, a public relations director.

"Our employees, on average, each saved 43 pounds of pollution, saved two gallons of gas, saved 41 miles of travel and 70 minutes of their time," Mr. Wann said.

Government officials say its centers are not being used enough yet.

"We aren't filling these centers because federal workers just don't know about them," Mr. Weiner said. "We need to market the idea better."

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