Zipping to work on the keyboard of your computer

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At least once a week Don Smith Jr. tumbles out of bed and heads off for a day at the office - in his dining room. There, near an oaken table and a squat china cabinet, sits a small computer. Using it to work at home, away from the irksome phone calls and countless staff meetings of the office, he gets far more done in a day - to say nothing of avoiding an hour commute (one way) to work.

''You can shut yourself off from the rest of the world and concentrate on one thing,'' says the senior technical consultant for the Atlantic Richfield Company in Los Angeles.

Mr. Smith is part of the long-heralded workplace revolution known as telecommuting. No fighting traffic on the way to work. No comments in the office about your tie. Just stay in the serene surroundings of your home and ''commute'' to work by computer.

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Futurists have long predicted that home computers and new communications technologies would usher in an era of the electronic cottage and transform the way millions of people make their living. Now the first wave of home workers has arrived - and the result is some unexpected risks as well as rewards for those involved.

No one knows for sure how many people work at home, linked to the office by computer. But the number is believed to be between 10,000 and 30,000, most of them part-time workers. At least 200 companies are testing work-at-home programs. Dozens of others, spurred by the proliferation of computers and workers' desires for greater flexibility on the job, are considering the concept.

''Workers are seeking more control over their lives,'' says Joanne Pratt, president of APECS, a Dallas-based consulting firm. ''Telecommuting makes your work and leisure life very flexible.''

One obvious reason is that workers prefer the hassle-free confines of their den to the office. Take David Leclaire. He's a systems programmer for Aetna Life & Casualty, the big Connecticut-based insurance company. He usually works two or three days a week at home in suburban Hartford, tending to office chores through a computer in his living room. He can juggle his work hours. He is available for baby-sitting if need be. And, other than the temptation of the refrigerator, he is usually being productive in the late afternoon while his colleagues are commuting home from the office.

''It is a much different atmosphere,'' he says. ''You're not under somebody's thumb. It is much more productive.''

Others apparently agree. Electronic Services Unlimited, a New York consulting firm, recently completed a study of two dozen company home work programs. It found average productivity increases of 30 percent or more. The practice also allows business to tap new pools of labor. Best Western International Inc., the Phoenix-based hotel chain, uses prison inmates to take room reservations. The company has set up 20 computer terminals in a Phoenix prison for women. When their own operators get busy, the firm hires the inmates to handle overflow calls. Other firms employ the handicapped and elderly in home work programs.

With industry testing the idea, government is also beginning to take telecommuting into account in planning. The Southern California Association of Governments, a group representing six counties, is pitching ''remote work'' programs as a way to ease freeway congestion and air pollution. It estimates that a 12 percent drop in worker commutes in the Los Angeles-San Diego area by the year 2000 would reduce auto emissions 5 percent.

Telecommuting is popular among banking, insurance, and telephone companies. They require a lot of data-entry work and can easily be done at home on a word processor. Other telecommuters include writers, entrepreneurs, and workers in computer-related industries, who often already have the necessary equipment at home.

Not everyone embraces the idea, though. Unions, for one, see work-at-home programs leading to sweatshop-style exploitation of workers. Reason: It is hard to enforce wage laws and safety practices in the home. The AFL-CIO has called for a ban on most all electronics home work. ''These are the workers who have the least amount of power in the workplace,'' says June McMahon, research director of the Service Employees International Union, representing many clerical workers.

Managers worry about controlling workers not at their desks. Skeptical bosses , in fact, may be the biggest hurdle to telecommuting today. ''It takes high-quality management'' to successfully develop these programs, says Jack Nilles, a researcher at the University of Southern California's Center for Futures Research.

Workers who like to chat at the water cooler often resist the idea, too, though some home-bound employees keep up social contacts through extracurricular activities. Cost can be another factor. The tab for a computer, phone hookup, and other devices needed to send information between home and office can add up to $15,000 per person. Still, many firms figure they have to put out the money anyway. Why not set up a person at home and save on expensive office space?

With Chicago's Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust Company, technology was the problem. The bank temporarily shelved a home work program after running into snags in relaying data.

More unusual results can occur: A few workers have found the cookie jar too inviting while at home and have put on weight.

The upshot of all this is that telecommuting can work for certain companies and certain tasks. But it requires flexibility on the part of management and discipline and independence on the part of workers. The idea should get plenty of testing in the years ahead: With the move toward an information-based economy , USC's Nilles predicts that 10 percent of the labor force - 10 million workers - will be telecommuting at least part time by the year 2000.

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