A New Way to Commute to the Job: Through a Computer, Phone Lines : Communications: Futurists predicted it, and now it's here. Telecommuting may ease traffic by bringing the workplace to the home.

In 1987, Pacific Bell decided to add another computer at its Computer Records Center in San Diego, and that spelled change for Ken Weber.

Weber, a staff specialist on the team that keeps Pacific Bell's computer system used for network repairs working properly, was situated in an office designated to house the new computer. So he had to move.

But, when his supervisor began to look for space for him in another Pacific Bell facility, his boss decided not to incur a charge for using a different Pacific Bell office.

Since Weber's job kept him on the road about 70% of the time, Weber was told to work from home.

As a result, Weber became one of San Diego's telecommuting pioneers.

Telecommuting means, in essence, "using telecommunications technology to work in places other than the traditional office setting," said Patricia Mokhtarian, technical vice president of Schimpeler-Corradino Associates, a Los Angeles-based consulting group, and a nationally recognized expert in telecommuting.

In Weber's case, telecommuting meant installing a computer terminal, modem and bookcase in a spare room in his Poway house. When not traveling to offices in San Diego, Riverside, Orange and Imperial counties, Weber works from home, tapping into six mainframe computers. Weber sees his supervisor, now based in Northern California, about twice a month.

A Coming Megatrend?

Telecommuting has long been identified by futurists like Alvin Toffler as one of the coming megatrends.

The reason is simple--traffic. By the year 2005, traffic jams could cost American businesses $54 billion a year in lost productivity, according the Federal Highway Administration. By definition, employees who work at home won't be part of that problem.

Nationally, an estimated two million employees participate in telecommuting programs, working eight or more hours a week at home. Another 4.3 million employees and independent contractors work more than eight hours a week at home through informal programs, according to a national work-at-home survey conducted by Link Resources Corp.

Although interest in telecommuting has increased recently in Los Angeles and Orange counties, San Diego companies still seem to be indifferent.

"San Diego is certainly not at the forefront of telecommuting," said Kaley Mish, manager of human resources at Megatek Corp.

No Formal Program

Even Pacific Bell, which has more than 1,000 employees involved in telecommuting programs around the state, has no formal telecommuting program in San Diego. "We are just getting into it," said Terry Churchill, area vice president. But he estimates that several hundred of Pacific Bell's 5,200 employees in San Diego informally telecommute and spend part of their workweek at home.

Some San Diego companies that experimented with telecommuting did not opt to set up formal programs. For example, in the mid 1980s, two engineers at TGS, then Megatek's software division, got pregnant. "We wanted to keep them working as long a possible and not lose their services for a long period afterward," said Bob Bruns, president of the division at the time.

So he allowed them to telecommute. "It made sense for the company. They were programmers developing code, and they could work on it at home," he noted.

After they gave birth, both women returned to work at the office, although one eventually opted for part-time status. "Neither asked to continue to telecommute," Bruns said.

Megatek does not have a formal telecommuting program. "We have a lot of computer engineers who may unofficially work at home, but we have no policy or recognized group working at home," Mish said. "And it has never been raised as an issue."

'Break From the Past'

If the San Diego business community is resistant to telecommuting, so are businesses across the nation, said Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant based in northern New Jersey, "Management is reluctant to try telecommuting because it is a break from the past. For more than 100 years, people have been coming into the office. Having people work remotely upsets managers," Gordon said.

But some barriers to large-scale telecommuting programs are falling, especially in Southern California. The South Coast Air Quality Control District has mandated that large companies increase "average vehicular ridership"--the number of employees that arrive to work per car--or face stiff penalties. As a result, several companies are studying telecommuting as a way to reach those goals.

Carol Nolan, a Pacific Bell sales support manager specializing in telecommuting programs, who telecommutes several days a week, said McDonnell Douglas is considering a telecommuting program in the San Fernando Valley, and several other companies are considering pilot projects there.

Even the Air Quality Control District is getting into the act. In September, 30 of its employees began telecommuting two days a week.

The largest telecommuting program in the region is being launched by the County of Los Angeles. Within a year, at least 340 county employees should be telecommuting, according to Margery Gould, who set up the program.

Seen as a Money Saver

In addition to cutting down on traffic, Richard Dixon, Los Angeles county's chief administration officer, believes telecommuting could significantly reduce what the county spends on renting, leasing, constructing and maintaining office and parking space.

"If you want new (office) space, you better have a good telecommuting program," Dixon told a group of county managers in charge of implementing telecommuting in their departments.

Although, as Pacific Bell's Terry Churchill noted, "San Diego hates following Los Angeles' lead," it might soon have to get on the telecommuting bandwagon. The San Diego City Council has tentatively approved a model traffic management plan that would require companies to make a good-faith effort to develop ways to cut commuter traffic.

"There are no penalties now, but someday they could pass an ordinance with penalties," said Churchill.

Although San Diego's traffic problems are not as severe as those in Los Angeles, local freeway construction "cannot stay up with the growth we are experiencing," Churchill said.

Once companies try telecommuting, they may discover its other advantages. Ken Weber did. Although in the beginning he felt isolated, now he believes he is more productive than before. "There is a lot less time wasted," he said.

Would he ever like to return to an office setting? "I think it would be too confining. The walls would be closing in on me," he said.

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