BURNING UP THE HIGHWAY. Do people need more commuting amenities - or less commuting?

A MARKETING research manager at Campbell's Soup Company has come up with a novel idea for improving cars in the year 2001: a microwave oven in the glove compartment, so commuters can enjoy a hot breakfast on the way to work. The invention, which gives new meaning to the now old phrase ``meals-on-wheels,'' should come as good news to legions of weary drivers who have to stumble out of bed earlier and earlier to begin longer and longer treks to work. Recent reports from California, for instance, claim that commutes of one and two hours each way are becoming increasingly common in urban areas.

Still, heating a Pop Tart in the middle of the freeway is hardly what your mother had in mind all those years when she kept reminding you to ``Eat a good breakfast, dear.''

Nor is she likely to be enthusiastic about two other work-while-you-drive inventions: cellular phones and - coming soon - small fax machines that send and receive facsimiles while a car is on the move. What parent wants to think of offspring closing deals and cooking meals in the passing lane?

Safety is only one concern. Michael Nolan, a spokesman for New Ways to Work in San Francisco, a nonprofit organization promoting flexible work schedules, offers another: ``To me, being enslaved to your car while you're doing business is unhealthy and stressful.''

What Mr. Nolan and others in the group advocate instead are ``redesigned'' workdays and workweeks that make daily rush-hour commutes - with or without ovens and phones - less necessary.

``We're trying to make our work life more effective and our personal lives more productive and relaxed,'' says Paul Rupert, project director.

In Mr. Rupert's own life that involves using a ``variable and compressed'' workweek. ``I work at home as much as I can and am in the city as often as necessary, basically with a core workweek,'' he says. He commutes off-peak and spends two or three days in the middle of the week working in San Francisco.

``It cuts the length of the commute and the frequency - and I don't need a car phone,'' he comments.

Do people need more commuting amenities - or less commuting? Another vote for the second alternative is being heard from Francis Kinsman, a British business consultant, who notes darkly, ``Commuting can only become both more horrible and more expensive. In the end its costs of stress and strain, as well as its costs in money terms, though endured by the employee, are all passed on to the employer and thence to the consumer.''

Writing in ``The Telecommuters'' (John Wiley & Sons, Chicester, England), Mr. Kinsman continues: ``There comes a moment for everyone when the daily commuting grind finally becomes so unbearable that something snaps and the search is on for an alternative.''

One alternative, he explains, is working electronically from home.

Thanks to the wonders of telecommuting - a marvel even surpassing a microwave in your glove compartment - a worker no longer must be desk bound at the office. Laptop computers, fax machines, pocket pagers, and voice-mail systems symbolize a revolution in the workplace, offering almost instant communication between an employee at home and an employer at work.

Beyond reducing the expense and exasperation of commuting, telecommuting can alleviate other problems, such as a lack of parental leave and a shortage of affordable child care.

``It's often ideal for a mother to work at home,'' says Nolan. ``It seems to be the beginning of an answer.''

One computer services firm in Berkhamsted, England - F International - has operated for 25 years on the premise that work in a ``non-office environment'' can be productive and profitable. Many of its 1,000 staff members work from home, putting in a minimum of 20 hours a week.

``We offer flexible work arrangements as a standard procedure,'' says Rosie Dean, group communications manager. ``It's normal for us.''

Most companies remain reluctant to try, or trust, in absentia work. Clinging to the belief that if they can see the whites of an employee's eyes, that employee must be working, managers continue to play the role of corporate schoolmarms brandishing attendance books.

Rupert fails to see the bottom-line logic. From his experience at New Ways to Work, he remarks: ``More people need flexibility in the work force, and more employers want flexibility in their labor mix. By encouraging people to develop fair and flexible work arrangements, we think they increase productivity and morale, reduce absenteeism, and allow people to live slightly more sane lives.''

Meanwhile, those who still trek to the office every day can look forward to the small consolation of that glove-compartment microwave - a gadget that Nolan, for one, is in no hurry to try.

``I'd spill the food all over my pants, coming into a toll plaza,'' he predicts. ``So what you'll also need is some portable clean-and-press in the back.''

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