Working from home. The long-held fantasy: pencil-pushing while still in

Telecommuting, one of the biggest work trends of the decade, has helped reshape the way many Americans do their jobs.

Anywhere from 9 million to 16 million people employed with an "outside company" work from home at least one day a week. And the numbers will likely increase as a new wave of technology infiltrates the home and workers demand more flexibility.

Yet the notion that everyone will be working from home in blue jeans and bunny slippers is about as likely as corporate America adopting a four-day work week. Rather, telecommuting points to how flexible work is becoming. Increasingly, the office will be just one of many places from which people will be able to work. "In the next five years the number of telecommuters may get up to 15 million or 20 million, but the key is that number will be much more fluid," says Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant in Monmouth Junction, N.J. "So rather than saying, either you're a telecommuter or you're not, the individual will be able to say, 'Based on what I have to do today, here is the best place for me to work.' "

The number of telecommuters has jumped in the past decade, as managers become more comfortable with people working without supervision and companies see such benefits as lower turnover, higher productivity, and reduced real estate costs.

At AT&T Corp., 24 percent of its 75,000 managers worldwide work from home at least once a week - up from 8 percent in 1993. Those who work from home tend to put in at least an hour more a day than those in the office, says company spokesman Burke Stinson.

At Minneapolis-based Ceridian Employer Services, 10 percent (roughly 300) of its fulltime employees telecommute fulltime - a number that has doubled in the past two years. Most are required to be in the office just one day a week for meetings.

Bob Kudla, director of marketing and business development for Ceridian Small Business Solutions, has been working from his home in Laguna Niguel, Calif., since 1994.

"It's maximum flexibility," says Mr. Kudla, which is key, since most of his clients (as well as the people he manages) are in other parts of the country.

"Nobody has to wait until I get into the office," says Kudla, who's usually at his desk in his master bedroom no later than 6:30 a.m. He plows through phone calls, eats lunch at his desk, and uses his lunch break to put in a 45-minute workout at a nearby gym. He usually spends about half of his time at home, and the other half on the road, meeting clients and checking in with his manager in Minneapolis.

He contends that he's more productive at home as well as more accessible to clients and colleagues - primarily because he's not pulled into unnecessary meetings. "If people want me in a meeting they have to really need me," he says, because of the logistics involved.

But the key question is: Where is telecommuting working?

"If you asked me that question 10 years ago, it would have been very easy to talk about," Mr. Gordon says. "Today, it's easier to talk about where it doesn't fit."

If you're a plumber, or a surgeon, or work on a factory floor, most concede that it's pretty tough to telecommute.

Still, virtually all types of jobs have some portion of work that can be done at home - something that requires undisturbed thinking, careful analysis, or just pencil pushing. Such professionals as lawyers, accountants, even engineers have joined the ranks of today's telecommuters.

"When we get away from the [thinking] that it has to be all-or-nothing, it dramatically opens up the possibilities," Gordon says.

In fact, most telecommuters spend only one to three days a week working at home, according to the 100,000-member American Telecommuting Association in Washington. Consultants like Gordon don't recommend that people work from home fulltime.

Still, just because the job - or part of it - can be done from home, doesn't mean that it's right for the person.

"There was a time when people looked at telecommuting in the same way they looked at dental insurance. It is still not for everyone," Gordon says. "There are too many people who don't want to or can't work from home for one reason or another.

Some people don't have the space at home. Others have young children running around, he says. And many people are easily distracted by the television or the refrigerator.

"The good telecommuters tend to be the good employees," Gordon says. They are self-motivated and have strong communication and organizational skills.

Still, for some, it's just not appealing.

"I've tried it. I don't like it," says AT&T spokesman Burke Stinson. "I'm the type of individual who needs an emotional break from work."

The next few years could bring a new boom in telecommuters, as many workers have been holding out for high-speed cable and wireless technology to reach their homes.

Still, plenty of companies, consultants say, are voicing the same skepticism about telecommuting they voiced 15 years ago. And some managers are still afraid to let workers out from under their noses.

"Any time a manager is dragged kicking and screaming into this, they will find a way to sabotage this," Gordon says. At the same time, he contends that managers who resist probably won't be around for long.

"It's very clear that one of the key things people today look for in a company is flexibility ... whether or not they themselves take advantage of it," Gordon says.

Flexibility, he contends, says a lot about a company's culture.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.