Comforts of home, and a paycheck

Workplace: About 50,500 Baltimore-area employees telecommute, and the number is growing.

October 28, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The power goes out, so you fumble in the dark, pick up the phone and call Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

You might get Barbara Palmer -- sitting at home in a bedroom with racks of shoes and a bed lined with stuffed animals.

For the last six years, Palmer's office has been the spare bedroom in her Northeast Baltimore rowhouse. She uses the same kind of phone and computer as her colleagues in BGE's downtown office on Lexington Street. But unlike her co-workers, Palmer doesn't need to worry about dressing up or driving to the office.

"I love my job," Palmer said yesterday, between callers who wanted to change their electric service or inquire about a bill.

Palmer, 43, is among the growing number of Baltimore-area employees who work for companies or government agencies without leaving home. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a planning group, estimates that 50,500 area employees telecommute, and the state is trying to encourage more companies to offer that option.

Palmer, who has worked for BGE for 21 years, began telecommuting when the company started a pilot program in 1993. She applied to participate because she thought it would be "neat" to work from home.

BGE paid for the computer, telephone and installation of additional phone lines in her house. Palmer supplied a desk and chair.

`Great' for employer

Both she and her bosses say the arrangement has worked well. Palmer, who answers more than 100 calls a day, has consistently received high marks from her supervisors and compliments from her customers.

"It's great for us," said John Glenn, who supervises the staffing for BGE's call center. Palmer and two other customer service representatives who work from home are able to respond quickly during emergencies, taking calls almost immediately while other workers must travel to the office.

Palmer appreciates being allowed to work at home, avoiding a 20-minute drive through city traffic. "I'm so happy I don't have to worry about traveling in bad weather," she said.

Even though she can respond quickly to emergencies, BGE doesn't take advantage of her availability, she says. She normally starts her day at 7: 30 a.m. and finishes at 4: 45 p.m.

"I have learned to separate this room. I only come in this place to get my shoes and to work," she said from her home office, a lavender-colored room with white curtains. A framed customer satisfaction certificate rests on the wardrobe, a toy clown hangs on one wall.

Customers never know that they have reached Palmer on the second floor of her home rather than in the downtown call center -- a large room crammed with cubicles where about 100 workers take calls.

BGE officials have been pleased with telecommuting arrangements, although the number of employees allowed to participate is still small. Only three customer service representatives work at home, but Glenn said the company is considering expanding the program.

Other BGE workers who telecommute include managers, designers and sales representatives in the company and its subsidiaries.

Darryl Stokes, manager of Utility Human Resources Services, said the company has found that telecommuting boosts employee morale, increases productivity and saves on office space.

Palmer says she gets more work done telecommuting than she did in the office.

"I don't have the noise level, and there's no one to distract me," she said. "I'm definitely more efficient here."

She's never tempted to leave her desk to run errands or do housework. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't; BGE monitors the number of calls she takes and how quickly she responds to customer needs.

Even with that corporate monitoring, telecommuting requires self-discipline and independence, Palmer says.

One BGE employee who started out in the pilot program decided to return to the office because he missed his co-workers. The Baltimore Metropolitan Council found that one of the most common complaints telecommuters had about their arrangements was feeling out of touch with their office.

Palmer says she also misses her colleagues, although she keeps tabs on the office through interoffice mail and the phone. She occasionally drives to the office for meetings, never misses company parties, and keeps up on water-cooler gossip. "I know stuff people downtown don't know," she said.

Few drawbacks

The only drawbacks, she says, are that she has gained a bit of weight and become less social because she has become accustomed to staying at home.

Rarely does she dress up these days, so many of the shoes that were in her extensive collection have been tossed out or go unworn.

These days, her work attire is apt to be a T-shirt and shorts in the summer, flannel pajamas in the winter.

"I've saved lots of money on dry cleaning bills," she said.

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