At home and on the job Telecommuting: The computer, telephone and fax machine are making it possible for more and more workers to ply their trade from home. "It's a great way to work," one reports.

December 27, 1997|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Good morning. Or is it?

If you work, your mornings are probably full of little challenges: picking out the right clothes, scarfing down breakfast, taking kids to day care, and that best-loved of all a.m. rituals, commuting.

There are people who don't have to worry about such things, and, no, they're not lottery winners or Trappist monks. They're telecommuters, gainfully employed and socially adjusted men and women who just happen to spend their workdays at home, plying their trade via computer, telephone and fax machine.

As you might guess, this arrangement has its charms.

"It's a great way to work," said Nicole Thomas, a media buyer for W. B. Doner & Co., a Baltimore advertising firm. "You get an awful lot done. You don't get as many interruptions. You don't have to commute, so that time is spent doing more."

Thomas typically comes into the office twice a week, but spends the rest of her working time at her home in Ellicott City. Doner began offering telecommuting in March 1996 to lure top media buyers, people who purchase broadcast and print ads.

This strategy seems to be working.

"The only reason I'm in Baltimore working for Doner is that they offered this," said Jim Privett, another Doner media buyer. "Do I like it? Yeah, absolutely."

Privett had been working in New York City, but decided to leave before his son, Julian, now 5, started school. Joining Doner as a telecommuter has involved tradeoffs. If he were not telecommuting, he'd be at an office somewhere climbing toward a managerial position. Then again, if he weren't telecommuting, he wouldn't be able to spend days with his son.

"It's a life-stage thing at this point," he said. "What's important is not doing the whole agency thing. I'm doing something that's important to the agency and focusing on what's important in my life."

Doner officials say their company has benefited from offering the telecommuting option. Dave Robinson, a senior vice president at Doner, said the company's 30 media buyers nationwide had been required to go into the office twice a week.

But something interesting happened. "We found that they got so much more done out of the office that we cut it back to one day a week," Robinson said.

Workers' maturity a factor

One major reason why the telecommuting project has gone so well, according to Robinson, is that the media buyers are a relatively seasoned, responsible lot. "We don't have 25-year-old kids doing this," he said. "We have mature people who are going to be accessible."

While telecommuting is a growing phenomenon -- it's estimated that there are 8 million telecommuters nationwide now, with that number projected to grow to around 30 million after the turn of the century -- some companies have cut back on their use of it.

Virtualogic Inc., a Bethesda-based technology consulting firm, has about a dozen telecommuting employees out of its overall work force of 90. The company's president, Peter C. Johnson, said he had expected to make far heavier use of telecommuting when he founded the company five years ago.

"As the company's grown, the hectic pace and the need to work in teams has caused people to need to congregate," Johnson said.

HuskyLabs, a Web-site designing firm formerly based in Hampden and now located in Shepherdstown, W.Va., was once a "virtual company," with programmers creating sites (including The Sun's) from their homes in several states, including Arizona and California.

Monica Larson, HuskyLabs' vice president, said the company has moved most of its work force into the Shepherdstown office, in part because the employees simply enjoyed working together. She said telecommuting works for some kinds of jobs but not for others.

"When you're doing tasks that are easily divided up, it's no problem," Larson said. "When you're doing tasks that require a lot of brainstorming, it's good to have people in one place."

Many telecommuters themselves have a more unambiguous view of the practice. When asked if there were any drawbacks to the telecommuting life, Doner's Nicole Thomas said, "No, I can't think of one thing."

But it turns out there is one thing, the absence of vending machine in her home.

"I can always get Diet Coke at the office," she said, "but sometimes at home I'm out."

Pub Date: 12/27/97

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