Pressure grows to telecommute

Workers are finding out that a fast home computer is the answer to high gas prices, impassable traffic


On most workdays, account executive Jean Gunning's highly orchestrated commuting routine begins at 7:30 a.m. when she leaves her Towson home and arrives about two hours later at her office in Washington. She follows a similar path home, getting in on most nights after dark.

"On the days I commute, I can't do anything other than work, eat, and sleep," she says.

But once a week, Gunning avoids the commuter shuffle by telecommuting from her home office.

"It's great to actually be home in Baltimore at 6 p.m. and make a real dinner that doesn't come out of a box," Gunning says.

Higher gasoline prices, improving technology and ever-crowded highways are pushing more workers and their companies to consider telecommuting, experts said. Many motorists say staying home makes them more productive and allows for a better balance in their personal life.

But some bosses and workers acknowledge drawbacks to working from home. Some employees worry about bringing the work into their home, fearing the job can intrude on free time.

Others say being away from the office cuts down on face-to-face contact with bosses, colleagues and clients. And many bosses still resist the practice because they struggle with the notion of managing employees they can't see.

Coined just 30 some years ago by NASA rocket scientist Jack Nilles who grew weary of Los Angeles traffic, telecommuting allows employees to work from home by using various technologies to stay hooked in to their job.

In 2000, 4.2 million Americans worked from home at least three days a week, more than double the number in 1980, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Separate statistics from the Labor Department show that 15 percent of the population worked from home at least one day a week in 2004 - a percentage that was virtually unchanged from 2001.

Pam Tucker, principal of Telecommuting Inc., a Baltimore consulting firm that helps employers implement telecommuting programs, says those who live in and around Washington telecommute in much larger numbers than those in the Baltimore area.

An estimated 50,000 employees - or 3.6 percent of the work force - telecommute in Baltimore and its five surrounding counties, according to a recent survey by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

Experts say the telecommuting trend fluctuates with the economy.

"Now, with unemployment at an all-time low, it's a way for companies to recruit and retain talented employees," Tucker says. "And if gas prices stay high, we're going to be seeing more of it."

Many workers say the technology makes it too convenient to waste time sitting in traffic when there is business to be done. Motorists in the Baltimore area have the sixth-longest commute among cities in the nation, spending an average of 29 minutes getting to and from work, according to the U.S. Census.

"Technology has really changed the way we work," says Maryella Gockel, flexibility strategy leader at Ernst & Young, which offers telecommuting as part of its flexible work policy.

E-mail, iPods, BlackBerries and other technology provide instant access to co-workers, regardless of location.

Until recently, Owings Mills resident Carl Graetz routinely traveled 54 miles over two beltways to reach McLean, Va.'s Booz Allen Hamilton office.

"Worst case scenario, I'd spend three hours driving home," Graetz says. "Several times I found myself very stressed out because I promised I'd pick up the kids from day care, and I didn't know if I'd make it on time."

Now, the Booz Allen associate telecommutes from his home office 90 percent of the time.

"I can take my kids to the park, attend events at their school, have dinner with my family," he says.

With up to five extra hours a day, Graetz exercises regularly, participates in community projects and sleeps better. He's also saving $12 a day on gas.

Architect Mary Ann Lasch, a project manager with international architectural firm Gensler, saves far more on transportation expenses. Originally from Cleveland, she no longer buys a plane ticket whenever she gets homesick. Two years ago, she moved back to Ohio. But she still works for Gensler's Washington office.

Lasch, one of four telecommuters in a 200-person office, takes the arrangement in stride.

"It's just another way to work," she says.

Managing employees remotely doesn't faze Lasch either.

"They're sending me deliverables. It's the employees who are sitting around the corner not talking to you that you need to worry about," she says.

Like others, Kristen Cox lists family as one of the reasons she telecommutes. She's Maryland's secretary of the Department of Disabilities, plus the mother of two sons - one an infant. On the one day a week she works from home, Cox sometimes walks her 8-year-old son to school or spends a few minutes at lunchtime nursing and nuzzling with her 8-week-old son. His caregiver lives just around the corner.

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