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TELECOMMUTING TO EXTREMES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Paula Brantner's job as a program director for a nonprofit group is centered in San Francisco.

But she works from her home in Silver Spring.

Brantner is a long-distance telecommuter - and has been for more than four years.

She makes up just a sliver of the work force that is employed in a home office that is far from the company's main headquarters. Yet a number of businesses have gone to geographic extremes by allowing workers to telecommute full time - even if they live halfway around the world.

"I would highly recommend it," said Brantner, 39, who supervises three workers in San Francisco through e-mail, teleconferencing and trips to California a few times a year for face time with her employees.

Some companies allow such moves in hopes of expanding their hiring pools and finding the best employees, regardless of location. But employers and telecommuters say such working habits are not for everyone.

"Your job has to be right for it," said Sid Heaton, a technical writer for a California software company who telecommuted while traveling through Europe in 1999. "Everybody pictures technology as freeing, but there's a real dark, enslaving side to that. If the office is everywhere, then should you always be at the office? You don't get down time that you need."

Experts doubt extreme telecommuting will one day dominate the workplace centscm+RDmkane:simplybecause most workers - and their bosses - need the social interaction that comes with the office setting. Several bosses also struggle with managing workers far from headquarters who cannot visit the office if they are needed immediately.

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"My guess is [extreme telecommuting] will continue to be the exception," said Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, a telecommuting consulting company for employers.

"The question mark is not about technology, but simply a matter of getting over some of the employers' reluctance to have somebody work that way at a distance without having them acclimated to the organization."

Last year, about 12 million people telecommuted full time - a number nearly unchanged from 2004, according to a survey by the Dieringer Research Group for the International Telework Association and Council. An earlier study from the Dieringer Group showed 8.8 million people telecommuted full time in 2003.

The data was taken from random telephone surveys of about 1,000 U.S. adults in 2004 and 2005.

The number of people who telecommute overall steadily increased from 2001 to 2005. Figures show about 17 million telecommuted at least one day a month in 2001. The figure rose to 26.1 million by 2005, according to the Dieringer Group.

Several full-time, long-distance telecommuters said the process works well when a worker knows the company and its culture and has strong relationships with colleagues in the office.

Brantner said she began telecommuting in January 2002 as an experiment. A friend had started a nonprofit group, Workplace Fairness, which promotes workplace rights and public policy. As both acting executive director and program director, Brantner said she has a good relationship with her staff members - though she does not see them that often.

"It's a tech-savvy institution," she said. "We're used to doing things in e-mails and conference calls."

Heaton, of Nevada City, Calif., said younger employees, especially those looking for promotions, need the social ties only an office environment can provide to strengthen their career paths. He said workers who do not have experience managing their time may not do well either.

"If I was 24, then yes, being at the office would be kind of cool," said Heaton, 38.

Michael Amigoni, chief operating officer for ARO Inc., a call center in Kansas City that has used the full-time telecommuting model since 1997 for most of its employees, said younger workers often want the social stimulation an office provides. ARO outsources telephone calls for the medical, health care, financial and insurance services fields.

To help with the younger-worker problem, ARO reaches out to its home agents through instant messaging, e-newsletters and invitations to "Muffins with Managers," which provides employees in the area an opportunity to go into the office to have breakfast with management.

"You have to work harder as a company to keep everybody not feeling isolated," Amigoni said.

However, because most of ARO's telecommuters are "mature baby boomers," many of them don't mind the lack of interaction, Amigoni said. He added that nearly all 200 of the company's employees work from home. The longest telecommute is from Arizona.

"We can recruit better people now than we ever could, and we can focus on matching people to the types of work that we have," Amigoni said.

Amigoni said the company uses the system for cost savings and recruitment of more experienced workers. He said the company calculates it saves nearly $1 million a year from smaller office space, the cost of computers, and from a lower turnover rate attributable to telecommuting.

He said ARO employees use their own home computers. Brantner said her company pays for her computer, but she uses her own desk, printer and phone.

Another challenge facing some telecommuters is taxes and what state has a right to them.

The "convenience of the employer" test is part of several states' tax laws and has recently gained attention in New York.

The law allows the states to tax 100 percent of out-of-state workers' incomes if they telecommute, even if they pay taxes to the states where they live. In many cases, telecommuters are exempt only if they can prove they were required to telecommute and were not doing so for convenience.

Essentially, residents of any state who telecommute to New York or other states with the same law could be required to pay extra taxes, even if they telecommute full time and visit the state only occasionally.

Although many states give credit for taxes paid in other states, those taxes, particularly in New York, are sometimes higher than those in a telecommuter's resident state, said Nicole Belson Goluboff, a New York lawyer and author of the 2001 book The Law of Telecommuting.

"This is not an isolated problem," said Connecticut resident Edward A. Zelinksy, a professor of tax law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, who telecommutes a few months each year.

Nearly 10 years ago, New York sent Zelinksy a notice telling him he owed the state taxes for the days he telecommuted to New York, forcing him to pay Connecticut and New York income taxes for the days he worked from home. Zelinksy said his efforts to have the courts overrule the move have failed.

Even with the challenges, one telecommuting supporter said he thinks the system will soar, and the opportunity to improve recruiting is one reason why. Chuck Wilsker, president and chief executive of the Telework Coalition, a nonprofit organization that promotes telecommuting, said employers are turning to the practice to ease financial burdens.

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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