For all its advantages, 'telecommuting' is slow to catch on with employers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Every morning, you can see thousands of them, one to a car, clogging the Beltway as they drive to an office to make phone calls and type at a computer -- work they could do just as easily at a home office.

That's changing. A handful of Maryland employers, from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. to the Montgomery County government, are experimenting with "telecommuting," allowing employees to work at home, in offices equipped with computers and telephones.

And more employers are likely to follow soon because of reports like a recent AT&T; survey that found that telecommuting boosts productivity, makes workers happier and cuts companies' space costs.

For some, though, telecommuting's progress in Maryland is as frustratingly slow as rush-hour traffic. The drive to allow workers to commute to their jobs on electronic highways has been slowed by worker and manager mistrust, they say.

"You'd think it is a no-brainer to see the benefits of telecommuting," said Pam Tucker, founder of the Hunt Valley-based Telecommuting Inc. consulting firm.

But the changes needed to make telecommuting succeed are difficult for both workers and managers, said Ms. Tucker, who founded the firm after her own telecommuting experience failed because of isolation from bosses and colleagues.

"It is hard for corporate America to change management styles," she said. "Managers feel they have to see people they supervise instead of measuring results. . . . And unions have a hard time accepting it" because of fears that isolated home workers will be exploited.

Those concerns haven't slowed the nationwide boom in telecommuting. The number of Americans working at least part time from home offices has increased from 2.5 million in 1988 to 7.6 million this year, according to the New York-based Link Resources Corp.

Marylanders can see the change in Montgomery County, where some government workers are participating in a 3-month-old telecommuting pilot program, and at BG&E;, which will launch a 30-worker experiment next week.

In addition, the federal government plans a compromise arrangement -- building "telework" centers in Hagerstown and Charles County. The offices will be equipped with computers and phones linked to Washington so government employees who normally commute to the capital can work close to home.

As personal computers become cheaper and better, and companies look to cut costs and boost productivity, telecommuting will grow even faster, Link says.

Another factor that may help clear the logjam of corporate hesitancy: an anti-pollution law requiring employers to reduce air pollution caused by commuting. Link predicts that the number of telecommuters will jump past 11 million -- to include 9 percent of American workers -- by the Clean Air Act's deadline for employers of Nov. 15, 1996.

One company that might change is McCormick & Co. William C. Hart, manager of information services, has been pleased with results after he has allowed computer programmers to work at home because of family emergencies. But McCormick doesn't permit regular telecommuting.

"It is a different idea, and I think that people just kind of back away from it," Mr. Hart said, adding: "The laws are changing. . . . And that will raise the issue."

McCormick's attitude is typical of Maryland employers -- they'll allow some workers to telecommute during family emergencies but are unwilling to set up a formal program.

Only one major employer -- Bell Atlantic Corp. -- has a widespread telecommuting program. The phone company allows its 16,000 managers in the region to telecommute if their job doesn't require their presence in the office.

Bell Atlantic's year-old program shows the benefits -- and pitfalls -- of telecommuting. For Kathy Hentz, a claims supervisor, telecommuting from her Arbutus home has been terrific.

Because she visits her downtown office only once or twice a week, she saves about four hours weekly in commuting time. She often can schedule work to be free before and after school for her three children. And she has saved hundreds of dollars a month on expenses, from parking to nylons.

"I used to pay $90 a month to park," Ms. Hentz said. "And it has been so long since I've been to a dry cleaners, I don't know how much it costs to have a suit done."

Instead, Ms. Hentz works in jeans and T-shirts in her garage-turned-office. The biggest drawback: the tendency to overwork.

Her husband has his own desk in their home office, and they often find themselves silently poring over their files at night and on weekends. "My husband and I were just talking about it," she said. "We said, 'This is romance -- sitting back to back to each other?' "

Telecommuting has been great for Bell Atlantic, said Al Berman, Ms. Hentz's boss. Participants are handling more cases than they did when working downtown. Absenteeism has plummetted: The six telecommuting claims supervisors called in sick a total of four days in the past two years. And the division has slashed its space needs by about a third.

But the program hasn't been without costs, or opponents. Bell Atlantic had to change the way it manages people to make

telecommuting work, Mr. Berman said.

The program created a strain on those remaining in the office because telecommuters often called in for small favors, like looking up telephone numbers. So, Bell Atlantic required telecommuters to come in and trouble-shoot for each other. And managers had to keep closer tabs on the telecommuters.

Mr. Berman has the entire staff come in for monthly meetings. Telecommuters must turn in work diaries every month. And Mr. Berman visits them in their home offices for a performance review at least once every six weeks.

Union resistance

But union workers at Bell Atlantic, like the three associates in Mr. Berman's department, haven't tried telecommuting, out of fear that the company could turn home offices into electronic sweatshops.

"We are somewhat skeptical of the concept," said Jeff Miller, national spokesman for the Communication Workers of America, which represents unionized employees at Bell Atlantic. "Unions are all about people who know each other and have a bond, and who take action together," he said. "They won't if they don't know they are being abused."

Some union concerns about double standards for telecommuters may be valid. For example, an Elkridge woman who has telecommuted for a Virginia cellular phone company two days a week says her bosses have downgraded their evaluation of her, even though she is getting more work done at home.

The woman, who asked not to be named for fear of alienating her bosses, says much of her job involves quiet work on a computer -- like debugging and designing telecommunications programs. Since she has begun telecommuting, she has finished projects nearly twice as fast, because she can run programs at nights and weekends.

Ignored for promotions?

But she feels she has been passed over for a promotion because she isn't in the office to handle emergencies or engage in office politics. "I think it is unfair," she said.

She has considered giving up telecommuting and making the three-hour round-trip drive every day. She is stopped only by thoughts of her children. "My children like to see me there when they come home," she said. "That makes up for a lot."

Employers are trying to figure out ways around such problems. Marian Brescia, who heads the Montgomery County telecommuting experiment, recommends that telecommuters work at home no more than two days a week, to make sure they stay connected to their office and bosses.

People interested in telecommuting are told to make sure they have the trust of their supervisor, have a "buddy" at the office to do errands and not to care for small children while working at home.

Ms. Brescia, who began telecommuting one day a week in March, is sold on the concept. "Part of my job is budgeting for the quarterly reports," she said. "With the interruptions in the office, it normally takes me 2 1/2 weeks to do the report. I did it one morning in four hours [at home]."

She also loves dressing casually and working quietly. "It is a wonderful feeling," she said. "Nobody's looking at you. . . . It is liberating."

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