The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

More workers telecommuting, but obstacles remain

September 23, 2007

By Philip Walzer
The Virginian-Pilot


When the Navy transferred Marlieke de Lange Eaton's husband from Rhode Island to Norfolk in 2005, she knew she'd accompany him. But Eaton wanted to take her "dream job" with her.

Since January 2003, she'd been with the U.S. Sailing Association as associate communications director, serving as chief spokeswoman, updating the group's Web site, and putting out a weekly electronic newsletter. Eaton, who began sailing as a girl in Holland, didn't want to give up the job.

She went to her boss with a proposal: Could she keep working out of her new house, more than 540 miles from the association's office in Portsmouth, R.I.,

He said yes, not without a touch of uncertainty.

Two years later, both employer and employee say the arrangement has been smooth sailing. Eaton, 33, works out of a third-floor office in her Lafayette Boulevard home. She spends more hours on the job now, checking e-mail first thing in the morning, eating lunch at her desk, occasionally returning to work on the weekends.

"Obviously, the benefit is, we get to keep Marlieke working with us," said her boss, Dan Cooney, the association's marketing director. "We don't want to lose a person like this. She means too much to the organization."

"To be very honest," Cooney added, "I would much rather have Marlieke sitting in the next office. But the next-best thing is Marlieke by the phone and by the e-mail, working with us."

More Americans are "teleworking" or "telecommuting," spending at least part of their workdays at sites other than their offices, usually their homes. The reasons, among others: a spouse's move, the desire to avoid a long commute, the birth of a child.

But Hampton Roads lags behind the rest of Virginia and the country in embracing the trend, statewide and national surveys show. Observers say that's partly because local parking costs are not high enough and traffic jams not bad enough to propel workers to demand alternatives.

Regionally, 7.2 percent of workers engage in some form of teleworking, compared with 11.3 percent across Virginia, according to a July survey by the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Those numbers do not include self-employed workers.

WorldatWork, a nonprofit professional association, this year estimated the national participation rate at 19.2 percent. Omitting "contract" or self-employed teleworkers, that number falls by more than half, to 8.3 percent.

"My sense of it is, it's not a commonly used work procedure here in Hampton Roads," said Donald Davis, an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University who studies the trend.

Still, Tim E. Jenney, a sales manager for Cox Business in Virginia Beach who helps set up teleworkers electronically, has seen business grow the past few years. "We see a little bit of everything - from mom-and-pop stores that can work out of their home now to larger companies who are allowing their employees to stay home."

The biggest obstacle, Davis said, is the boss's mindset. "Organizations don't trust their people to work away from the office. Managers feel out of control when they can't see them."

Studies, however, offer positive takes on telecommuting, showing improved morale and productivity and reduced sick leave and turnover. Companies including AT&T and Merrill Lynch reported $10,000 in savings for each telecommuting employee.

Workers save, too. Terry Smith, 52, switched to working from her Chesapeake home during her last eight years as a systems programmer for Bank of America. Between parking, gas and lunch savings, Smith estimated she recouped more than $100 per week - or more than $5,000 per year.

Environmentalists say it also reduces pollution and road congestion. A Texas A&M University study released Tuesday said the average U.S. worker spends the equivalent of nearly 40 hours each year stuck in traffic going to and from work.

The drawbacks of telecommuting include lack of social interaction and the worry that working at home will hinder job advancement.

"The people at the post office I go to are almost like my best friends," Eaton said. "I go there and I'm like, 'Hi!' "

In 2001, the state opened the Telework VA program to encourage businesses to pursue telecommuting. So far, participation has been meager.

The program, begun in Northern Virginia, offers up to $35,000 over two years to cover costs such as leasing equipment for teleworkers. By the close of those two years, companies must have at least 10 employees who telework at least six days a month. Hampton Roads and Richmond were added last year.

Jennifer Thomas Alcott, the director of Telework VA, counts 52 Virginia businesses - eight in Hampton Roads - that are current or past participants or are on the verge of entry into the program. Virginia has more than 620,000 small businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

"It has been very small to date," Alcott said. "That's because we have no marketing."

In the fall, she said, the program will launch a public relations campaign that she thinks will boost interest.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who represents the 10th District, is one of Congress' foremost advocates of telecommuting. The Northern Virginia Republican has inserted threats into the federal budget to cut agencies that don't do enough to promote teleworking. These days, though, he sees education as more important than mandates.

"It's a mind-set," Wolf said. "That's the biggest hurdle. But the hurdle is collapsing. More people are teleworking, and they see the results."

Rita Mace Walston, executive director of the Telework Consortium, a nonprofit group based in Northern Virginia, looks at it this way: "I think we're still pushing this rock uphill in a lot of respects, but I can see the crest of the hill from here. We're getting to the point where it's more and more accepted.

"But it's still not generally accepted."

Eaton works at a wide brown desk in her home office. The floor is lined with stacks of handbooks with titles such as "U.S. Olympic Committee Guide to National Sports Talk Radio Shows." The room also features an expansive view of the neighborhood; Eaton usually keeps the blinds down to keep focused.

In many respects, Eaton follows recommended practices for teleworkers. Her office, on the third floor, is set off from the rest of her house. Only a phone with her work number rings into the room.

She also returns to the Sailing Association's Rhode Island office about once every six weeks to maintain relationships.

"It's very important to have face-to-face and eye-to-eye contact," Eaton said. "There are things you can't tell about people's attitudes on the computer."

Eaton has a 3-month-old daughter, Fleur, who usually stays on the second floor while Eaton works. But she soon hopes to land a nanny or an opening at a day care center. "I can just imagine a conference call with our major sponsor, Rolex, and me saying, 'Excuse me, I've got to feed my daughter.' That's not professional."

She's right, Walston said. "Telework should not replace day care."

Kelli Raineault is a new mother, with a different telecommuting arrangement. Raineault, 27, has worked for more than three years at KPMG as a senior tax associate. After her son, Nathaniel, was born in February, she switched to working part time, from her Virginia Beach home. Unlike Eaton, who works regular hours, Raineault begins digging into her tax returns at 7:30 or 8 p.m., after her son goes to bed.

Though telecommuting attracts women who have young children or whose husbands have been transferred, studies show the majority of teleworkers are men. Upper-income earners are more likely to work from home. The racial breakdown is similar to that of the population as a whole.

Marketing and information technology professionals, who rely on the phone and computer, are natural fits for telecommuting. Attorneys can be, too.

Melissa Morris Picco joined the Norfolk law firm of Crenshaw, Ware & Martin PLC in 2005. When her husband was assigned to NATO in Brussels, Belgium, earlier this year, Crenshaw let her stay on part time. That comes to nearly a 4,000-mile telecommute.

She can't take depositions or argue motions in court. But she can still research issues online and write motions and memoranda. Working at home, she finds fewer distractions. But she also feels the loss of contact with colleagues, both personally and professionally.

"I wouldn't choose to telecommute if I didn't have to," Picco, 34, said by telephone.

Representatives of some businesses, including Cox Communications, Northrop Grumman Newport News and TowneBank, say the nature of their work provides little opportunity for teleworking.

"With the majority of our positions here, even mortgage lenders, they're in the office," said Judy Stephenson, senior vice president for TowneBank. "They need to be available to meet with people."

Teleworking advocates, however, say employers need to think broadly about the possibilities. Police officers and nurses can telework when they're doing paperwork. Personal assistants have become virtual assistants.

Other local telecommuters include a grant manager for the Judeo-Christian Outreach Center in Virginia Beach, an accounting supervisor for White's Nursery & Greenhouses in Chesapeake and the general manager for Rowena's gourmet food manufacturer in Norfolk.

Davis, the ODU professor, sees a downside to the increased productivity attributed to telework: "There's no question, it's like giving alcohol to an alcoholic. You're fueling a workaholic." Yet his research has shown increased satisfaction among telecommuters.

A more immediate worry is how telecommuting might affect a worker's future. In a global survey by Korn/Ferry International this year, 61 percent of executives said telecommuters were less likely to advance up the corporate ladder.

"Teleworkers do have to work harder to have their accomplishments noticed," said Walston, from the Telework Consortium. "They're not there to toot their own horns all the time."

Consider Abbey O'Connor. She wonders if she lost her job because she telecommuted.

PricewaterhouseCoopers allowed her to work from home when she moved from New York to Farmville in 2000. Two years later, "cuts had to be made, and a large number were telecommuters," including O'Connor.

"You don't seem as critical when you're not there," said O'Connor, now a lecturer in management at Longwood University. "Not that we weren't doing the job."

News researcher Maureen Watts contributed to this report.

Philip Walzer, (757) 222-3864,

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