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Despite distractions, manager resistance, telecommuting takes hold

July 3, 1997

Larry Madsen, a father of eight, has spent seven years working out of his home for AT&T. He’s had to teach his children to knock at the study door.

And although he’s happy to help out at times, he’s had to gently tell his neighbors that he can’t always help start their cars or drive all the car pools.

``You have to get used to it,″ said Madsen, a sales manager in suburban Salt Lake City. ``But I love the freedom of having my office here at home.″

Despite entrenched resistance from many managers, more and more companies are allowing telecommuting, and more Americans are taking them up on it, according to surveys released this week.

Eleven million Americans are telecommuting at least one day a month _ a 30 percent increase in the last two years, according to a survey released Wednesday by Telecommute America, an advocacy group.

On average, telecommuters work 19 hours a week from home, spending other time in the office, said the survey, the first national polling of the trend in two years.

When Sage Publishing, a Los Angeles academic book publisher, couldn’t find enough top-notch editors on the West Coast, it reluctantly turned to telecommuting.

The company now allows editor Catherine Rossbach to work out of a rented business suite in the New York City suburbs _ a situation she loves but one which the company still calls an experiment.

``If you want to be a global company and the talent is in the eastern part of the country, go where the talent is,″ said Nancy Hammerman, a vice president and director at Sage. But because workers need face-to-face contact and support from colleagues, ``we still don’t think it’s always a good idea,″ she said.

The telecommuting survey didn’t include workers like Rossbach who rent office space, or those who work full-time at home but no longer have a corporate office. Including such workers, the ranks of telecommuters are even higher.

For employers from the federal government to small businesses, telecommuting provides a way to boost productivity, save on real estate and attract good workers in a competitive labor market.

``We’ve heard from employees that the flexibility that teleworking provides them certainly has been a benefit to them,″ said Sue Sears, project director for telecommuting at AT&T.

One in four Fortune 1,000 companies now have employees who regularly telecommute either part-time or full-time, according to another study by KPMG, a human resources consulting firm.

President Clinton, as well, has given the issue a push. Up to 25,000 federal workers _ or about 1.5 percent of the federal work force _ telecommute nationwide, and the government is aiming to have 15 percent working from home by 2002.

AT&T was one of the first major American companies to formally promote telecommuting, introducing a policy in 1992. Now, 55 percent of the company’s managers in the United States telecommute, up from 38 percent two years ago, Sears said.

Not everyone is happy about that.

The 600,000-member Communications Workers of America, the largest union at AT&T, has not allowed its workers to telecommute until it receives more written guidelines, said James Irvine, a CWA vice president.

``What if a child trips over the computer cord and gets hurt? What if the worker spills coffee in their laptop?″ he said. ``We can’t get answers to that stuff.″

Despite the difficulties in setting up a telecommuting life, converts like Rossbach think it’s worthwhile _ and productive.

``I work in a more focused and uninterrupted fashion than they do,″ Rossbach said of her California colleagues, whom she flies out to see every few weeks. ``For one thing, I don’t go to meetings!″

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