PITTSBURGH — EMPLOYERS and employees, tired of long commutes and earthquake-damaged freeways, are taking a new look at work-at-home technology in the Los Angeles area. Their decisions in the next few weeks will give a short-term boost to a trend known as telecommuting.
But whatever the increase in their numbers, it is likely to be only a blip in a much larger trend. Far more Los Angelinos will choose to telecommute for reasons that have nothing to do with earthquake-related traffic.
``There's certainly lots of interest,'' says Jack Nilles, a West Los Angeles consultant who coined the term ``telecommuting'' in 1973. He estimates an extra 10,000 to 20,000 area workers will telecommute a month from now because of the earthquake. But even before, at least 120,000 people were expected to join the 600,000 area residents who spend one or more weekdays working at home. This 20 percent growth mirrors the expansion taking place nationwide. Some 7 million to 8 million Americans telecommute today. By the turn of the century, at least 25 million will do so, Mr. Nilles says.
Some high-tech companies, sensing an immediate need from Los Angeles employers, have made their telecommuting products readily accessible. Ocean Isle Software in Vero Beach, Fla., for example, is offering to ship its remote-control software for personal computers free of charge to Los Angeles area residents. ``We don't want [it] to appear that we are trying to take advantage of this,'' says Doug Fowler, the company's vice president of new products. ``The idea is that we will help them get over this hump.''Several companies, including GTE, Pacific Bell, and Intel, have joined with the city and county of Los Angeles to create the Southern California Telecommuting Partnership. The group has its own toll-free number (800-6-INFO-HWY) for Los Angelinos wanting help setting up as telecommuters.
``Mother Nature dealt us a severe blow,'' says Susan Herman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Telecommunications. But ``it gives a chance for employers to think creatively.'' The city itself has 509 employees affected by the freeway damage.
GREATER Los Angeles has nine telecommuting centers. Firms are donating space and equipment to open up two more later this year. The centers offer office space that is close to home but linked, via computer and phone, to employers' offices. In affected areas north of the city, the response has been strong. Four of the nine centers have been filled. One had only two tenants and four-fifths of its space vacant before the earthquake.
``We're seeing a high interest level,'' says Carol Nolan, telecommuting manager at Pacific Bell. ``People are definitely thinking there's got to be a better way to do this.'' Ms. Nolan is concerned, however, that employers will only use the centers in the short-term and then pull their workers back into the main office when the freeways are fixed. That happened after the 1989 San Francisco quake. Because of the long-lasting damage in Los Angeles, Nilles estimates that only half of the earthquake telecommuters will go back to their old ways.
Last September, the city of Los Angeles completed a two-year study of 500 workers who telecommuted and 500 more who did not. It found that the telecommuting workers were on average 12.5 percent more productive and absent two fewer days a year. Projected savings from the increased productivity and the city's reduced costs in terms of energy, pollution control, and workman's compensation amounted to an annual $8,000 per telecommuter.
Telecommuting is such a big change that managers do not adopt it easily. They worry that they will not be able to monitor their employees. They fret about lost productivity.
``We've had people out there kicking tires for the last five, six years,'' says Robert Calis, president of EyeTel Technologies Inc. The Vancouver company makes video-conferencing equipment for personal computers. With the earthquake, ``those corporations that have been interested in video-conferencing won't have the reason not to use this stuff.''
The earthquake has highlighted the possibilities of work at home. Right after the 4:30 a.m. shock, Margaret Biggs logged onto her company's network using Ocean Isle's remote-control software. As the director of data communications for Countrywide Funding Corporation, based in Pasadena, Calif., it was her job to make sure the computer network was all right.
``I don't think that tomorrow all our employees will be sitting at home,'' she says. But ``the earthquake really brought that discussion much more to the table.''