Two-Step Commuters Dispel `Robe and Slipper' Myth

Telecommuters and entrepreneurs lend credibility to the alternative work style

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS more and more people choose to work from home - either telecommuting, working via fax and modem for someone else, or running their own home-based businesses - they often find themselves combatting surprising myths and stereotypes.

Author Anne Lamott, in ``Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,'' (Pantheon, $21) writes of her childhood embarrassment about her father - a writer who worked at home:

``Many years passed before I realized he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill. I wanted him to have a regular job where he put on a necktie and went off somewhere with the other fathers....''

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Today, because of corporate downsizing and telecommunications advances, working from home is no longer strictly the province of freelance writers and social pioneers. People are working from home in droves.

Link Resources Inc., a New York-based market-research firm, estimates that as many as 24 million full- and part-time, self-employed Americans work out of their homes. They estimate that another 6 million telecommute at least one day a week, and that the number is growing.

But despite the burgeoning legions of home-based workers, working at home continues to carry some of the myths and stereotypes author Lamott detailed in writing about her work-at-home dad.

``Consider that historically the `best and the brightest' went forth into the world - away from home - to hunt and make money in factories and offices. That's just what we have done for 175 years,'' explains Paul Edwards, author with his wife , Sarah, of ``Working from Home'' (Putnam, 1994) and ``Best Home Businesses for the '90s'' (J.P. Tarcher, 1991). ``Who was left: People who didn't fit the organizational mold; oddballs like writers and artists, the infirm, and women to raise the brood. We harbor some pretty primitive attitudes.''

Back in 1974, for example, when Mr. Edwards left his job as president of a research foundation to work at home, neighbors thought he was unemployed. Now, Edwards and his wife are among the growing coterie of home-business gurus, disseminating wisdom on how to work from home through books, radio, cable television, and on-line. ``Family members, neighbors, and friends will test you a great deal,'' Edwards explains. ``They'll ask you, `Can you have coffee with me?' Or you'll get pushed into being the local errand runner or the depot for UPS packages. That's a discounting of people working at home.''

Well-meaning friends and neighbors can confound the home-based worker by making demands on time. Writer Susan Permut, author of ``Adventures in Eating'' and ``More Adventures in Eating,'' relates this story: One morning the pediatrician's wife from across the street dropped by asking Ms. Permut to baby-sit for a couple of hours while she ran errands. Permut politely declined, saying, ``No, I can't. I'm working.'' Perplexed, the woman responded, ``Oh, but he won't be any trouble.''

``Would you take your kid to someone's office?'' Permut asks, rhetorically. ``But, because I was working at home, she thought that it wouldn't be a bother.''

Audrey Choden, who operates Training by Design - a company providing custom employee-training programs near Kansas City - suspects she has missed out on some business opportunities because of her company's size. ``[These clients] were looking for a larger company to begin with,'' she explains. ``They couldn't conceive how the work could get done and felt uncomfortable from a legal standpoint. They didn't want to deal with the situation to begin with.''

In addition to attitudinal barriers, home-based businesses face structural road blocks. For security reasons, temporary agencies typically won't send workers to home offices and certain professional services may be more difficult to get.

When Judy Madnick, owner of A-1 Office Assistance, a home-based word-processing firm in Albany, N.Y., requested pick up and delivery from a local copy center, they informed her that they do not deliver to home offices because too often people weren't there. Although Ms. Madnick assured the manager that she was on-duty all day, he wouldn't budge. ``This really shook me up,'' Madnick says. ``As a home business, you start to feel like you're gaining credibility and that attitude doesn't help.''

The federal government has also played a role in discounting the home office. In 1993, the United States Supreme Court in its Commissioner v. Soliman decision severely curtailed the home-office tax deduction, making it nearly impossible for most home businesses to deduct office expenses. A bill is currently before Congress to restore the home-office tax deduction.

Society has been slow to accept home businesses for a variety of reasons. Often, people trapped in unhappy work situations envy the flexibility of the home-based entrepreneur. And, because many home-based businesses are woman-operated, the possibility exists that sexism plays a role. ``When a woman says, `Oh, I work at home,''' Permut observes, ``people think, it's not a real business; they think it's something to fill up your idle hours. But I do think that's changing because woman are being taken more seriously and more people in general are working at home.''

Although negative associations linger for home-based businesses, times are changing. Recognizing a growing market, private industry is working to cater to home-based businesses. Many phone companies offer special services and rates for home businesses, and some of the bigger office-supply warehouses are even making home-office deliveries. ``This has helped with the acceptability,'' Ms. Choden says. ``If home offices weren't recognized as an untapped market for goods and services, they would still be perceived as cottage industry.''

However, Brian Cassedy, chairman of the National Home Office Association in Washington, sees the ``robe and slipper'' myths surrounding home offices as all but extinct: ``This is the greatest social change since the advent of the two-income family. It's here. It's a reality.... It's the wave of the future.''

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