Telecommuting Boomlet Has Few Follow-Up Calls : Labor: Interest was high after Northridge quake. But a host of factors hold back wide adoption of the practice.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Telecommuting, an idea that excited the imaginations of many traffic-weary Southern Californians after January's earthquake, is looking more and more like a nifty notion whose time hasn't quite come.

There is no rush of employees trading Southland freeways for the information superhighway, partly because of quick road repairs and resistance from traditional managers who like keeping an eye on their workers.

Although no one tracks exactly how many people telecommute, the slow growth--a surprise for many boosters--is readily apparent. One key indicator: Leasing is sluggish at the handful of telecommuting centers that have opened or expanded in earthquake-affected areas since the temblor.

"It's still a newish concept, and all change and new concepts take some getting used to," said Connie Worden-Roberts, director of the Santa Clarita Valley Telecenter, a telecommuting facility in Valencia.

The modest gains in the ranks of Southern California telecommuters are a disappointment to government officials, technology executives and other proponents. Many were hopeful that telecommuting centers--also known as "telework" or "telebusiness" centers--would get a big boost after the quake, along with home-based telecommuting.

"The interest was extraordinary for the first week after the earthquake, but it's definitely dropped off since then," said Karen Wilson, project manager of the Antelope Valley Telebusiness Center in Lancaster.

With working at home still impractical for many, centers such as Wilson's and Worden-Roberts' let people work in offices typically equipped with computers and fax machines. Some even have "video-conferencing" gear to help workers participate in meetings without leaving their neighborhoods.

So far, there are few such facilities; all of the existing centers combined contain fewer than 200 spaces for workers in quake-affected areas.

Even so, the centers are riddled with vacancies.

For instance, only about half of the 25 to 30 work spaces are occupied at Worden-Roberts' center in Valencia. At a center opened by AT & T at Santa Monica College in March, 13 of the 19 spots go unused on a typical day.

The response also has been underwhelming to a program offered at the Lancaster center that encourages home-based telecommuting by loaning laptop computers and providing fax and photocopying services.

While innovative, the program "hasn't taken off like I thought it would," Wilson said.

That's not to say the idea of telecommuting lacks appeal.

Mary Beth Parks, a marketing manager for Hilton Hotels Corp. in Beverly Hills, says she would be interested in telecommuting a few days a week from her home in Valencia. Telecommuting would let her be with her 3 1/2-year-old son immediately if an emergency occurred. And Parks would get a welcome break from the daily trek to work in Beverly Hills--a drive that, since the quake, takes her 60 to 80 minutes.

But Parks still hasn't taken the leap. The cost of setting up a home office with a computer and fax machine--particularly when she and her husband are trying to scrape up money for earthquake repairs--is a big obstacle. And as "a beginner at best" with computer equipment, Parks worries that it would take a long time to learn to work efficiently from home.

"It would set me back a while," she said.

At Hilton, six or so of Parks' co-workers tried telecommuting after the earthquake. Today, a company spokeswoman said, "almost none" still do it with any regularity.

What happened? Employees found that "by not being physically at your workplace, you miss out on the corporate culture, the creative brainstorming and interaction that leads to new policies and ideas," the spokeswoman said.

Great Western Bank, whose corporate campus in the Chatsworth-Northridge area was pounded by the Jan. 17 quake, is leasing space at a telecommuting center next door to Worden-Roberts' in Valencia. But some bank employees who live near the facility rarely, if ever, use it.

For example, Sharon Lemieux, a systems and data processing supervisor from Newhall, found it comforting to have a satellite office near home after the quake; she used it three or four times. Now, however, Lemieux says she would much rather be at her regular Northridge office--in case her bosses call an impromptu meeting, or if problems crop up with, say, the installation of a computer at a bank branch.

"We like to solve (problems) on the spot," Lemieux said.

For self-starters who don't need much face-to-face contact with customers or co-workers--such as computer specialists, claims processors, writers, researchers and designers--telecommuting is an easier adjustment.

At the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services, many social workers telecommuted one day a week or more even before the earthquake. Others were forced into the practice when county offices, particularly a building in Panorama City, were damaged by the temblor.

Still, once new office space is available, most of the new, post-quake telecommuters probably will return to their previous habits, said Brian Berger, director of special services for the agency.

"There is a real need for socialization and reinforcement among the (social workers) and their supervisors," Berger said. "They make difficult decisions and difficult recommendations, and it's important to talk these things out among peers."

Even if telecommuting has made only modest gains after the earthquake, many experts remain convinced it is the wave of the future.

They just aren't sure when the future will arrive.

Consultant Gil Gordon says the era of telecommuting is drawing closer because a new generation of corporate managers is emerging. These people, he said, are more comfortable with flexible work situations and more willing to restructure to accommodate such changes.

Experts say companies that never even talked about telecommuting before are now at least thinking about it. And, Gordon noted, the technology that helps people telecommute keeps getting better.

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