Telecommuters: Just phoning it in has boss' OK

Traffic, pollution woes cause Md. to advocate working from home

October 27, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Every weekday morning, Fran McDonough gets up and commutes to her job at Bell Atlantic -- walking through the kitchen, down the stairs and into the basement where she turns on her computer.

"The only traffic I run into is the laundry basket," said McDonough, a claims specialist and one of a growing number of "teleworkers" -- government and corporate employees who work at home or in regional centers.

About 50,500 employees, or 3.6 percent of the workers in the Baltimore metropolitan region, telecommute to their jobs at least occasionally, according to a study released today by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. And faced with increasing traffic congestion and air pollution that ranks among the nation's worst, Maryland is encouraging more companies to start telework programs.

"It's one more way to increase our capacity of the transportation network we have," said state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.

This year, the Maryland General Assembly ordered state agencies to establish teleworking programs with a goal of enlisting 10 percent of state workers whose jobs are conducive. In the private sector, the state has funded a $600,000 campaign to encourage employers to establish telework programs.

Congress has approved a program giving companies financial incentives for allowing employees to work at home.

Nationwide, telework is growing quickly; advances in technology, concerns for pollution and low unemployment are prompting employers to offer more flexible working conditions, said Gail Martin, executive director of the International Telework Association and Council, a nonprofit group that promotes telework.

"It's really a phenomenon of the 1990s," said Martin, noting that telework has grown from 4 million workers in 1990 to about 18 million this year. Those numbers do not include the self-employed who work in home offices.

In the study released today, the Metropolitan Council estimates about 17 percent of the areas employers offer telework programs.

`It's a perk'

Bell Atlantic began allowing employees to telecommute about 10 years ago as part of a larger incentive package to attract and retain good workers, said Fred Jenkins, the company's director of Human Resources Communications and Work Life Strategies.

"It's a perk we bundle in with other workplace policies," Jenkins said.

McDonough, who has worked for Bell Atlantic for 29 years, used to spend most of her day in the field investigating damaged phone lines, then drive to her office in Baltimore to write reports. But in 1992, she and her supervisor decided she could write them at her home in Columbia.

"This job is really conducive to telecommuting," she said. "Everything I do is by fax, phone and computer."

Her office, a 10-foot by 6-foot niche in the basement, has all the office equipment she needs, plus a few amenities -- pictures of her children occupy one wall, a portable stereo plays soothing music and her gray tabby cat Orion snoozes on a table beside her.

The telephone and computer are McDonough's main link to her colleagues. Her immediate boss works in Boston, another supervisor is in Newark, N.J., and the clerical staff that assists her is in Philadelphia.

"We do have meetings where we try to get together once or twice a year," she said.

Baltimore Gas and Electric, which started a telework program in 1993, has noticed that teleworking improves morale and productivity and saves on office space. "Overall, there has not been any drawback," said Darryl Stokes, BGE's manager of Utility Human Resource Services. "It has been a win-win situation."

Some experts say as many as half the workers in the Baltimore-Washington region could telework at least a couple of times a month. About 12 percent of Washington-area employees already do, studies show.

Although the percentage in Baltimore is much smaller, researchers nevertheless were encouraged by what they found in the Metropolitan Council study, said Earl Long, senior transportation planner for the regional group. "We have had very little push for telecommuting in the Baltimore region," he said.

The majority of the employers who do not offer telecommuting programs say their line of business is not suitable for at-home work, the study found.

"I don't think it necessarily lends itself to the work we do," said Barbara Lucas, spokeswoman for Black & Decker Corp. in Towson.

Others companies say they don't promote telecommuting because they have office space available.

"We don't use a lot of telecommuting because we find it more cost effective to use the existing space," said Charles Ingram, spokesman for State Farm Insurance in Frederick. "We have developed our claims offices to prepare for growth."

Other employers worry about the cost of setting employees up in home offices and fear productivity will slump, the study showed.

Employees who hesitate to telecommute said they would miss their colleagues and fear they would be passed over for promotion if they were not seen in the office.

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