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Telecommuting interest grows since Sept. 11

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

Until Sept. 11, software engineer Marcella Parsons worked long days at the office for a Silicon Valley networking company and dreamed of retiring to the mountains someday.

The terrorist attacks changed her attitude toward life, and work. She's now a full-time telecommuter, spending those 12-hour workdays at the alpine condo she moved to near Lake Tahoe, where she's happier and professes to be just as productive.

''I find that I get more done working at home,'' says Parsons, 43. ''I don't have to be in as many meetings, and I can sit on phone conferences and look up at the mountain slopes lined with pine trees.''

Telecommuting, long touted as a way to improve employees' quality of life and save companies space and office costs, remains an unlikely option for most American workers but is gradually gaining a foothold in the workplace. Pro-telecommuting organizations report a surge in inquiries since the attacks as employers and employees alike re-examine their options in a world of changed priorities.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were 13 million to 19 million telecommuters in the United States last year, up from an estimated 4 million in 1990 who worked from home or other remote electronic locations.

As with many workplace trends, this one seems most prevalent among baby boomers, those born from 1946-64.

The typical telecommuter lives in the Northeast or West, is college-educated, age 35 to 44, married, a manager or salesperson, employed by a large company and earns at least $40,000 a year, according to the International Telework Association and Council.

Businesses are more open to telecommuting than before. A survey by Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Hewitt Associates found that 29 percent of the nation's 1,020 largest companies offered it last year, up from 19 percent in 1995. Interest is particularly high lately among New York-area firms that lost office space in the attacks, particularly for traumatized employees who want to avoid working in Manhattan.

Yet the wide majority still resist the practice, contending that workers need regular supervision and the benefits of ''face time.''

Bill Mahoney, president of Mahoney & Associates in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., allowed a half-dozen staffers of his employee benefits firm to telecommute for two years. He stopped the practice after concluding that not only did it not save money, employees were losing their feel for the company's culture.

Besides, he adds, it's hard to know what people are doing at home. ''In the back of every employer's head is, 'Is he at home or is he picking the kids up from school? Is he as efficient at home?''

Advocates point to the potential for improved productivity. They say telecommuting can also be a way for smaller businesses to expand their potential job pool and for companies to retain skilled boomers who might otherwise quit or retire.

That was the case with Parsons. Shortly after the attacks, she told Vpacket Communications, the company that employed her in its office outside Los Angeles, that she was moving to Incline Village, Nev., and they could decide whether to keep her on or not.

''That day, watching people jump out of the World Trade Center, hit me really hard, made me decide not to wait 10 more years,'' says the divorced mother of two college-age daughters. ''I wanted my dream while I was still young enough to have it.''

VPacket decided the special arrangement was worth it for a senior staffer, on condition she show up at San Jose-area headquarters every couple of weeks.

''Technology has facilitated this kind of work,'' says Vince Biviano, VPacket's engineering director. ''But it still has to be a special individual. They have to be able to work independently, have a proven track record within the company, be a hard worker, be in a certain discipline.''

Jamie Ziegler has been telecommuting to her Chicago job every Thursday since her first child was born 12 years ago. Originally she was warned the move would take her off promotion track. But Ziegler switched employers and won a promotion while continuing to work once a week from home in suburban Wilmette, Ill.; she's now a senior vice president at Northern Trust Global Investments.

''We have to be there most of the time -- we need the interaction with the people we're supporting,'' the 43-year-old Ziegler said of herself and two telecommuting staffers. ''But one day a week is great.''

Lisa Larimer Burtis, 40, telecommutes to Novato, Calif.-based Fireman's Fund from scenic Mendocino, a 2 1/2-hour drive up the coast. She misses the casual office communication that can be useful for work -- but not all that much.

''I work in a very focused environment,'' the information technologist says. ''There are no distractions of conversation around me. It's just me and the dog all day.''

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On the Net:

International Telework Association & Council at http://www.telecommute.org/

American Telecommuting Association, www.knowledgetree.com/ata.html

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