FOR Donna Cunningham, commuting 600 miles a day from her home to her office is a piece of a cake.
As media relations manager for AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., she works from her house in the remote mountains of northern Vermont. Armed with a video telephone, personal computer, modem, and facsimile machine, "I can stay pretty much in constant contact with my department," she says.
Ms. Cunningham is one of the growing number of Americans whose work for an employer is done at home.
The number of "telecommuters" grew to 6.6 million last year, up from 5.5 million in 1991, according to LINK Resources, a New York consulting firm. LINK predicts that more than 8.5 million people will be telecommuting by 1995.
Currently 1 in 7 United States companies offers workers a telecommuting option, says Thomas Miller, LINK's vice president of home-office research. More than half are informal telecommuters who work at home one or two days a week. The trend is driven not only by fancy telephones and computers but also by new ideas on how to manage and retain skilled employees.
A study of 200 companies with telecommuters found that working at home boosts productivity by 15 to 20 percent, according to Paul Edwards, co-author of "Working From Home." Mr. Edwards notes that telecommuting frees office and parking space that often costs $5,000 per employee a year. By allowing valued employees to work at home, companies are less likely to lose workers if they move or decide to start a family, Edwards says.
Cunningham is a case in point.
In 1989, when she was working in New Jersey for Bell Labs, "I met the most wonderful man in the world." Her husband-to-be worked in Vermont.
After getting married, she thought about quitting her job because she didn't want to ask her husband to move. She recounts that when she told her supervisor about the problem, the manager said, "You certainly have your priorities straight." To her surprise, AT&T offered the option to work from home.
Telecommuting "makes it possible for me to keep both my work and my husband," Cunningham says as she pats Coda, a golden retriever. To maintain contacts, Cunningham flies to New Jersey once or twice a month.
Cathy Stanley, a Bell Atlantic manager in Trenton, N.J., says she benefited last year when the company gave its 16,000 managers the option of working from home: "Telecommuting allows me to start working ... at 6:30, take a break a few hours later to take my daughter to day care and get back to work a short time later. The end result is I am more productive and ... my daughter spends less time in day care."
The saved commuting time also represents an environmental gain: "If only 5 percent of the commuters in Los Angeles County telecommuted one day each week, they'd ... keep 47,000 tons of pollutants from entering the atmosphere," President Bush told the California Chamber of Commerce in 1990.
Edwards cautions that before people consider telecommuting, they should clarify the following points with their employers:
* Are they getting paid the same rate as if they were working in the office?
* Are they being treated as full-time or part-time workers? Some firms regard telecommuters as part-time workers to save the cost of fringe benefits that runs as high as 50 percent of salary.
* Who pays for the equipment such as modems, computers, and fax machines? AT&T provides all of Cunningham's office equipment. But in some cases, workers must buy their own equipment.
"Telecommuting is not necessarily for everyone," notes Larry Barrett, Bell Atlantic's director of telecommuting. Workers needing constant supervision are not suitable for telecommuting, he says.
Some companies that have rigid corporate cultures do not feel comfortable with the idea of letting their employees work from home without direct supervision, Miller adds. In such companies, "As soon as you take someone out of the loop and put them at home, you run the risk of disrupting the work flow," Miller says.
Cunningham says this kind of worry is not warranted. Last year when there was a heavy snowstorm in the New Jersey area, no one in her department made it to the office. She handled all the calls forwarded from headquarters to her Vermont home.
"There is no snowstorm bad enough to keep me out of the office," Cunningham says.