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New Technology Opens Door for More Workers to Stay at Home

Times Staff Writer

In his 1980 book “The Third Wave,” author Alvin Toffler foresaw a day when people would work at home and be connected to their offices by inexpensive computers and other high-tech gadgetry.

These “electronic cottage” workers, as Toffler called them, would no longer waste countless hours per week commuting back and forth to their jobs. And people would work more productively because they wouldn’t face the constant interruptions that they do at the office.

“The whole idea was attacked by people who called it Utopian or just plain nutty,” Toffler said Wednesday. “The critics had a field day with the electronic cottage.”

But today, the number of people who work at home “is vastly greater than what we imagined 10 years ago,” Toffer told the audience at the “Home Office Computing Forum” in Laguna Niguel. The two-day conference, which was sponsored by Home Office Computing magazine, concludes today.

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Some 6 million Americans work full time out of their homes, up 22% from 1987, according to a 1988 Experts say that the work-at-home movement is being led by members of the baby boom generation, who are in their 30s and 40s. They also say that the single most important factor in the work-at-home trend is the computer, which allows “telecommuters” to be electronically connected via the telephone lines with their supervisors and co-workers back at the office.

There are many reasons why people are choosing to spend their work day in a spare bedroom, basement or den of their homes, said Thomas E. Miller, director of Link Resources’ National Work-at-Home Survey.

“People want to be their own boss; they want to be more productive; they don’t want to waste time commuting; they want to work at their own ‘peak times,’ and they want to have more time to spend with their family and children,” said Miller, who telecommutes between Link’s offices in New York City from his home in Ithaca, N.Y.

Although there are some obvious advantages to working at home, conference speakers cautioned that there are also some drawbacks.

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For example, telecommuters often must convince supervisors that they won’t “lose control” over people who work away from the office. “There is resistance to change at every level,” said Joanne Pratt, a nationally recognized expert in work-at-home issues who helped organize a year-old telecommuting program for 450 state employees in Sacramento. Pratt, president of a Dallas consulting firm, became a telecommuter several years ago when she was laid off from her job with a Dallas-area oil company.

Jealous co-workers, who may resent the fact that someone is allowed to work from the comfort of home, are another potential problem. And some telecommuters are discovering that they lack the self-discipline required.

Although no precise data is available, Pratt estimated that several hundred companies in the country have established telecommuting programs, including Pacific Bell, Best Western and J. C. Penney.

In 1985, when Pacific Bell moved its headquarters from San Francisco to San Ramon, about 40 miles away, a lot of white-collar workers didn’t want to make the move. Pacific Bell decided to allow many employees to telecommute part time. Today, about 1,000 of the company’s 17,000 employees work away from the office one or two days a week, said Pacific Bell spokeswoman Diane Olberg.

MORE PEOPLE WORK AT HOME

1987 1988 Chg First-Time Home Workers 945,000 2.4 million 154% Full-Time Home Workers 4.9 million 6 million 22% Hours Worked Per Week 14.2 19.4 37%

In 1988 . . .

Total home computer users 24.9 million

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Full-time users (35 hrs. per week) 6.0 million

Part-time users (freelancers) 18.9 million

Source: Link Resources


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