Telecommuting: reality sets in

CALIFORNIAN Lissa Zanville loves working in sweats, without makeup, and during her ``peak hours.'' She is one of about 1.5 million Americans who enjoy a hassle-free telecommute to work - for convenience, financial ease, or as an alternative to maternity leave. Labor experts have predicted that this commuting alternative - working at home or at a satellite office, linked to headquarters by phone or computer - would revolutionize the American work force.

A recent survey conducted by Electronic Services Unlimited, a New York consulting group, says that by 1990 more than 10 million American workers will telecommute. The shift from manufacturing to ``knowledge and information'' work - as well as telecommunication breakthroughs - is expected to bring about this ``wave of the future,'' says Thomas E. Miller, director of the consulting firm.

But although the numbers are growing, experts are still waiting for the revolution.

The actual number of telecommuters remains fairly small. According to the Department of Labor's most recent statistics, only about 1.5 million people actually telecommute, out of a total of 9 million home-based workers (which includes the self-employed and contractors who work at home). The total non-farm labor force in the United States is 108 million.

Telecommuting is not yet a corporate alternative, nor is it in the mainstream of corporate America.

``I'm not sure we'll ever get close to having a quarter of the population working this way,'' says Gil Gordon, an independent consultant who helps companies implement telecommuter programs.

Nor, says Mr. Gordon, would telecommuting among 10 percent of America's work force ``be remarkable, considering that by 1990, about 60 percent of the work force will be doing the type of work that can easily be done outside the office.''

Of the 300 companies nationwide that employ some type of telecommuter, only a few are known for the success and quality of their programs - programs ``not of the sweatshop era'' - says William Atkinson, a business writer who has been telecommuting for 12 years while researching a book on the subject.

But the growth of telecommuting programs such as those at Pacific Bell in San Francisco, Mountain Bell in Denver, and J. C. Penney is attributed to their flexibility, and to their focus on the individuals involved, rather than their jobs. With this type of approach, says a Pacific Bell spokesman, companies have been able to attract and retain valuable employees, cut the cost of office space, and provide a solution to short-term child care problems.

J. C. Penney's program has been especially beneficial in ``opening up a market of people that we wouldn't be able to use very easily,'' says Carl Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for Penney's in Milwaukee.

And Mrs. Zanville of Pacific Bell in Los Angeles found that her company played a great role in removing a sense of isolation, preparing her for the problems, and reducing the amount of stress working at home can bring.

But many telecommuters doing computer programming or research for smaller companies have not enjoyed as much success. They are finding telecommuting ``not all it's cracked up to be,'' says Henry Caiazzo, a second vice-president with UNUM Corporation in Portland, Maine. He worked with the company's now defunct telecommuter program.``They lost interest in the idea very quickly when they began to miss the social atmosphere of the office.''

Telecommuting employees at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta complained of being unable to keep in tune with each other and their bosses.

``Basic but essential interchange between staff members and those they supervised really suffered,'' says Bobbie McCrackin, who telecommuted for the duration of the program, which lasted less than a year.

This is one of the most often mentioned shortcomings with telecommuting.

``It doesn't really fill most company's needs,'' explains Kathleen Christensen, director of the National Project on Home-based Work and co-author of a forthcoming book, ``Women and Home-based Work: The Unspoken Contract.''

A large part of supervision and management is based on employees being there, Ms. Christensen says. And working at home tends to prevent an employee from being incorporated into the larger company structure.

Those who work full-time at home as clerks, word-processors, or researchers tend not to achieve as much professional status as their office counterparts and are often overlooked when it comes to raises and promotions, says writer Atkinson.

Concerned labor support groups, as well as the AFL-CIO, question the potential for telecommuting to ``create a second class employee,'' says Barney Olmstead of New Ways to Work, a San Francisco-based advocacy group.

Isolation, procrastination, distraction, and inter-employee jealousy are also wrinkles that need ironing out, Atkinson says. But telecommuting can work, he adds.

Consultant Gordon, who edits Telecommuting Review newsletter, says telecommuting is most successful when it is approached realistically, used carefully, and limited to those who are well suited to an unsupervised and potentially distracting environment. Companies that use telecommuting as one business solution among many are the most successful, he says.

``You need to look at the impact it's going to have on the company's overall efficiency,'' says Ms. McCrackin of UNUM. But more than this, Christensen says, employers need to look closely at the individual employee. It takes a good deal of adjustment and discipline not to overwork, says another telecommuter, who finds the that the presence of a home computer tends to extend work hours, not merely enhance them.

While Gordon's study found that productivity was not a problem (the majority of telecommuters experienced more positive attitudes as well), women who use telecommuting as a partial solution to the day-care dilemma have found the home an especially distracting work environment.

``A woman cannot simultaneously care for her child and do her work,'' says Christensen. She conducted a national survey of 14,000 women, including those with preschool children. It found that 2 out of 3 of these mothers who work at home (or would like to) had to use supplemental day-care. Zanville of Los Angeles says she returned to the office when her newborn child began to need too much of her daytime attention.

A good deal of managerial resistance to corporate telecommuting programs is due also to its expense, says Mr. Miller of Electronic Services Unlimited. Installing and maintaining on-line data sources in employees' homes, where they may not be fully used, is especially inefficient for companies that already have adequate space and equipment in the office, he says.

Companies must provide their telecommuters with regular benefit packages and compensation as well as equal opportunities for promotion. But issues of insurance and on-the-job injury compensation have caused some businesses to shy away from offering the option to any employees.

And for a good many Americans, the problems that exist with telecommuting convince them not to trade their lively office environment for an armchair commute - even if it means facing rush-hour traffic jams and the struggle for affordable and convenient parking.

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