Telecommuters: Just phoning it in has boss' OK; Traffic, pollution woes cause Md. to advocate working from home


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.

Trust inspires loyalty

Teleworking sometimes means companies must adjust management styles and employees have to refine work habits, Martin said.

"There is a thing that has to be there. It's the T-word -- trust," she said.

Gil Weidenfeld, who oversees the state's telework initiative for the Maryland Department of Transportation, says working at home one day a week inspires him to work harder. "I feel a greater sense of loyalty to my employer because they are trusting me," he said.

Teleworking also saves time and money. The drive from his home in Greenbelt to his office at Baltimore-Washington International Airport takes 35 minutes, Weidenfeld said. "It takes me 35 seconds to get to my home computer."

In addition to saving on gasoline and car repairs, teleworkers save on clothing expenses, McDonough says. "My bill for pantyhose has gone down tremendously."

The Communications Workers of America have been guarded in their acceptance of telework arrangements, however, raising concerns about the hours employees may be forced to work or the amount of privacy they can expect.

Many teleworkers say they work longer hours at home than they would at the office, frequently rising early or staying up late to make calls and enter data on the computer.

"We don't want work to become home electronic sweatshops," said Martin.

Even teleworking enthusiasts say it is not for everyone.

"In the beginning it was hard to telecommute," McDonough said.

Once, she tried working in her pajamas, only to be called out for an emergency. "Now I get up and get dressed, just like I'm getting up for work," she said.

And McDonough admits to missing her peers. "In a face-to-face meeting you can tell if there are hidden agendas or if someone is really upset with you," she said. "That can be lost in a conference call."

The answer for many workers is to continue to work in the office and telecommute only one or two days a week.

"I find it a fairly decent arrangement," said Richard Spence, who drives to work at Bell Atlantic's Greenbelt office two days a week and works at his Randallstown home the rest of the week.

Working from home even one or two days a month could make a difference in the state's traffic congestion and air pollution, said Weidenfeld.

Even though most Baltimore-area telecommuters work at home an average of three days a week, together they save 33,166 hours a day in the car and reduce the amount of air pollution by 5 tons daily, the study showed.

"You don't really have to take that many cars off the road to make a difference," Weidenfeld said.

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