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Earthquake: The Long Road Back : Telecommuting Takes Off After Quake : Business: Building owners are converting unused spaces into work stations to meet the demand. Most employees welcome the change.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took nothing short of an earthquake to shake loose some interest in telecommuting.

A county-funded telecommuting center in the Antelope Valley was virtually ignored when it debuted less than a year ago. But since the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake cut off freeway access and caused damage to corporate offices, that center and others scheduled to open later this year, have been inundated with calls from companies interested in giving their employees an office away from the office.

“Telecommuting brings the work to the worker rather than the worker to the work,” said Jack Nilles, who coined the term and is now president of JALA International, a management consultant firm specializing in telecommuting. “Electrons are a lot lighter to move than people.”

The concept of working at locations other than the traditional office has been around since 1973 when Nilles suggested in a book that workers no longer needed to show up at an office to get their work done. They can do it from home with a telephone and a computer.

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Nevertheless, the private sector expressed little interest in the county’s pilot telecommuting project--the Antelope Telecommuting Center on East Avenue K-6 in Lancaster when it opened last year. But in the week following the Jan. 17 temblor, the center has received more than 30 calls daily from individuals and businesses inquiring about leasing space at the 20-person facility.

“The demand proves that it’s the most viable alternative,” said Suzette Cecchini, the center’s administrator.

Two other facilities--the Santa Clarita Telecommuting Center and the Valencia Corporate Telecommuting Center, with a total of 40,000 square feet--had leased all their available spaces within two weeks after the earthquake struck.

“They have every inch of that place hooked up,” said Gary Johnson, technical adviser to the Santa Clarita center.

Both facilities are located at the Valencia Industrial Center.

Meanwhile, the sudden popularity of telecommuting has pushed some building owners to convert those spaces currently not being used into work stations, including Cal State Northridge and the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds.

The university announced plans Friday to convert three of its unused student dormitories into telecommuting facilities as soon as next week. The ground-floor apartments of the three-story Lupin Hall will be the first building in which work stations will be installed and and modifications will be made according to clients’ needs, CSUN officials said.

“Cal State Northridge is a pivotal part of the Los Angeles community,” Blenda J. Wilson, university president, said in a news release. “We’re pleased to work with Pacific Bell to extend our resources to help our neighbors get back to work.”

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CareAmerica Health Plans, based in Chatsworth, is among several companies setting up telecommuting centers to ease the long drive to work. The company is setting up a second office at the Antelope Valley Telecommuting Center in Lancaster so that 14 of its employees who live in the area do not have to make the two-hour drive to work.

“We anticipate that this site will help our employees who previously traveled freeways that are now partially closed, and should assist in alleviating the already extensive traffic problems that have resulted from the earthquake,” CareAmerica President Arthur Southam said.

Employees like Michelle Hafemeister praised the company’s effort.

“Now I have time to watch cartoons and have breakfast with my 2-year-old son, Aaron,” said Hafemeister, 31, a correspondent and field representative for CareAmerica. “And I can be home at a decent hour to have dinner with my family.”

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Other large companies, including Great Western Bank and Cigna, have rented spaces, and 10 others are negotiating for spots at the Valencia Corporate Center, which opened in December. The 30,000-square-foot facility is owned and run by Newhall Land & Farming Co. It charges users $1.50 per square foot a month.

“We estimated that it would take nine months to fill the spaces,” said Steve Valenziano, marketing director for the Valencia center. “We did it in two weeks. The earthquake accelerated it.”

“We have more takers than we do space,” he added. “All the spaces are practically spoken for for a year.”

The Antelope Valley center, which can accommodate only 20 people at present, plans to expand its facility to meet the higher demands, Cecchini said.

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Each of the 15 work stations is equipped with a telephone, personal computer, modem and various software. In addition, there are five private offices for those with confidential work.

Currently, there is no charge for users. However, beginning in March, the center may charge a fee to recover operating costs when public funding runs out, Cecchini said.


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