Working without going to work

Snowbound: People who work from home, by computer, fax and cell phone, are productive despite the storm.

January 27, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

While thousands of Baltimore-area commuters were slogging their way to work on crowded roads through ice and snow yesterday morning, Stephen H. Craft was already logged onto the computer at his in-home office, checking e-mail and editing a paper with a steamy mug of hot chocolate in his hands and a space heater warming his feet.

"Today was get out, shovel out the driveway, just in case, and spend the rest of the day working from home," said Craft, an assistant professor of marketing at Towson University.

With flexible work arrangements and teleworking increasingly popular in today's work environment, a snow day no longer means a total freeze on the local economy.

With tools once known only to the office, such as broadband Internet access, now widely available at home, turning a dining room into a virtual office has been made simple.

And the numbers of these backup offices are multiplying.

In 1997 there were 11.6 million people who "teleworked" at least once a month. By last year that number had more than doubled to 23.5 million, according to the International Telework Association and Council, or ITAC.

"The advancement in computer and communications technology that enables people to work from their home is as effective as if they were in an employee's office," said Robert L. Smith Jr., executive director of ITAC. "The increase in broadband access at the home gives that kind of instant access that they experience at the office."

Javier Liceaga, an engineer who normally works in Germantown and lives in Laurel, shoveled his driveway yesterday morning, fed his two children breakfast, then logged onto the company's private computer network from home and got to work.

"Basically, I can work at home almost as if I was at work, the difference being I wasn't physically there," Liceaga said.

At e.magination, a Baltimore technology company, about 80 percent of the firm's 65 workers made it into the office yesterday. An additional 10 percent were able to work from home.

But a winter storm can still be costly.

Yesterday's snow cost e.magination income because some of the company's clients closed up their shops for the day and couldn't be billed.

"Even though we do have some who can telecommute, days like this are extremely expensive," said Brian Ocheltree, chief executive officer of e.magination.

Still, with work rules increasingly flexible at many companies, it's easier for individuals to deal with a snowstorm because goals are more flexible. Where you work is less important than getting the job done.

"What happens on days like today is more of us can get on our cell phone and talk, take care of our customers. Even if we're caught in a snow day like this at the airport, we can get on our laptops and do the work," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an international outplacement firm in Chicago.

For those who do make it to the office, bad weather can mean a day of distraction or one peaceful enough to finally get some work done.

Snow days hamper productivity, with people canceling appointments or wasting time standing around the water cooler talking about the weather, said Challenger.

"What happens is people come in late, they get stuck in traffic, they get sick more often, they've got duties at home because their pipes froze and they just can't get in or their children are home from school on a snow day and they've just got to stay home, so productivity just takes a beating," Challenger said.

But for some, the hush of the snowy weather can mean a busier day at the office.

Tawanda Jackson, a state employee in the William Donald Schaefer Tower in downtown Baltimore, was one of only two workers in her office yesterday. Such quiet conditions, she said, made for a more productive day than usual.

"It's a ghost town," Jackson said during a smoke break. "You can actually get work done because there's no one to harass you."

When Henry A. Welcome Sr. arrived at his job with the U.S. Department of Labor in Baltimore yesterday, it was only to learn that the office had been closed. Still, Welcome and three others who showed up for work decided to stay, he said, adding that it was easier to get something done because the office was so quiet.

"We had commitments that we wanted to fulfill, so we stayed," Welcome said on his way to the bus stop yesterday afternoon.

The willingness of people to fight their way to work through difficult conditions is directly related to how well their companies treat them, said Dru Fearing, vice president of organizational effectiveness for Nucleus Solutions, an Arlington, Va., company that helps companies create an effective work force.

Fearing said companies will be more likely to have good attendance even during a winter storm if they consistently track absences, improve jobs so workers feel less stress and more autonomy, while building community so workers and managers look out for one another and look forward to coming into the office to see each other.

"On a day like this, we see a direct relationship between how much effort has been put in place in these three tiers and how many people choose to come in," Fearing said.

"A day like today really does offer the opportunity for individuals who are not fully pleased with their current situation at work to take a day off without ramifications."

Cristi Washington was one of 31 people who went to work yesterday at American Office, an office furniture business in downtown Baltimore. The 19 other workers in her office didn't make it.

After a morning commute that stretched to 45 minutes from the normal 15, Washington was cheerfully perched behind her reception desk, answering phones and receiving packages while a space heater warmed her feet.

"I'm one of the main people who just have to be here," she said.

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