It sounds like a clever way to relieve congestion in traffic-clogged Southern California: Set up an array of telecommuting centers in outlying areas equipped with computers, faxes and even videoconferencing gear to help people work close to home and avoid commutes to faraway offices.
In fact, a combination of public and private investment led to the opening of about 20 small facilities along those lines across the region in the 1980s and 1990s.
But even after drawing lots of attention and having years to develop a following, most of these telecommuting centers, or “telecenters,” have flopped. And the reasons they have failed, outlined in a new study, say a lot about how people work in Southern California.
Despite the misfortunes of the telecenters, the outlook for telecommuting from home remains promising. One of the main reasons the telecenters have drawn so few workers, the study found, is that upper-level managers and professionals who like working from a remote location typically can do it from their own homes.
With increasing numbers of workers owning personal computers and having access to the Internet from home, “it made the telecenters less necessary,” said William H. Dutton, the USC communications professor who directed the study.
At the same time, Dutton holds out hope that there will be a useful future role for telecenters. Instead of putting them in the suburbs to reduce commuter traffic, however, he would like to locate telecenters in poor urban neighborhoods or rural communities, where most people can’t afford top-quality home office equipment. The aim, Dutton said, should be to bring jobs to distressed areas.
As an example, he cited the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Blue Line TeleVillage at the Martin Luther King Jr. Transit Center in Compton. It currently provides work space for only two telecommuters, focusing instead on providing such neighborhood services as computer training and preparing job resumes. Other people, many self-employed, take advantage of the fax machines and photocopiers.
Some experts say combining telecommuting facilities with other community services may be one of the best ways to succeed.
“It’s a business incubator,” said Krishna Tabor, director of the Blue Line TeleVillage.
So far, though, the track record has been dismal for Southern California’s telecenters. The study reports that 12 of the 20 telecenters set up in the region since the early 1980s have closed.
Four others now are primarily used by small businesses as conventional office space. That leaves only the remaining four facilities as genuine telecenters providing remote work sites for employees who want to avoid long commutes.
The study points to a mismatch between the kinds of people who are most likely to telecommute and the nature of the telecenters that were developed. The telecenters typically provide utilitarian work space aimed at mid- or lower-level office workers.
Trouble is, those workers often have old-fashioned bosses who fear that employees will goof off if they aren’t being watched by supervisors.
The highest-paid workers--who typically have the most freedom to telecommute--are the ones most likely to be able to afford their own top-of-the-line office equipment and are likely to prefer the comfort and privacy of working from home.
Moreover, the study says, some telecenters stumbled because they have been dependent on government funding and managed by officials lacking the business skills to market them properly.
By far the biggest and most successful of the remaining four telecenters is the Antelope Valley Telebusiness Center, where there are an average of more than 50 telecommuters daily and the occupancy rate is 99%. It is run by a public-private partnership and is economically self-sufficient.
A key to its success, according to the report, is its location 50 miles north of Los Angeles; there is a concentration of workers there, in fact, who would face commutes all the way to Orange County were it not for the telecenter.
The other centers are far smaller, such as the TeleBusiness Center in San Juan Capistrano. It has room for 11 workers but, on an average day, draws seven or eight.
Still, Chuck Hauswirth, the owner of the 2-year-old facility, says telecenters can be profitable, and he is planning to expand his at the end of the year.
These centers, he said, fill a need for workers who lack the office equipment--or temperament--to work from home. At home, “the enemies are the TV, the refrigerator, the dog and the kids. Here they work in a professional environment,” Hauswirth said.
For similar reasons, Susan Herman, chairwoman of a public-private group promoting telecommuting known as the Southern California Telecommuting Partnership, argues that the future remains upbeat for telecenters. She acknowledged, however, that operators of the centers will have to keep a close eye on market demand and customize facilities to suit the needs of major employers.
For some companies, though, telecenters don’t serve much purpose. Great Western Bank experimented with the idea back in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake. The company set up a telecenter for its own employees in Valencia who either were having a hard time getting to work because of the quake or whose offices were damaged.
As soon as traffic returned to normal and the bank’s facilities were repaired, however, Great Western shut the telecenter.
“There was no demand. There was no need for it,” said Charles Coleman, a Great Western spokesman.
He said Great Western doesn’t have many employees today who telecommute, but those who do either set up home offices or work from one of the bank’s branch offices.
Dutton, whose study was commissioned by Japan’s Fujitsu Research Institute, said the current generation of telecenters also may fly in the face of corporate America’s downsizing trend.
As big companies shrink, they are less likely to have large clusters of employees living in distant suburbs--the kind of pattern that’s needed for telecenters to make economic sense for employers.
While the number of people working in telecenters remains insignificant, the ranks of people telecommuting from home grows steadily. A middle-of-the-road estimate by the research firm Find/SVP put at 9.2 million the number of employees nationally who work from home at least “a couple times” a month. That’s up from 5 million in 1990.
Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at email@example.com