`The Office Is A Terrible Place To Work'

When Tammy Aultman was offered a job selling computer systems for Hewlett-Packard Co. last year, there was one hitch. The job was in Mountain View, Calif., and the newly married Aultman was reluctant to move from Laguna Hills, some 350 miles to the south. Aultman's solution: Her own "virtual office." She built a desk in a loft in her condo, and HP outfitted it with a modem-equipped personal computer, fax machine, and spare phone lines. "They needed the skills I had, and we could work it out with telecommuting," Aultman says. "It's a new HP culture that's emerging."

It's emerging at a lot of other companies, too. The PC hasn't eliminated paper, as some futurists predicted a decade ago. But more American companies are turning to telecommuting to solve some very tough problems. Some are driven by the need to shrink real estate budgets. Others want to comply with new laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. And employers are using telecommuting as a way to meet worker demands for a better balance between work and family.

Already, 7.5 million workers, or 6% of the U.S. labor force, spend at least a few days a month at home working for their companies during business hours, says researcher Link Resources Corp. (chart). About one-third of them are contract workers. But the biggest addition to the total has been among salaried employees. In this group, the stay-at-home population has grown 21.5%, to 5.1 million, in the past year.

Take IBM. In the past four months, it has nearly doubled the number of employees who work mut of a "shared workspace"--one desk for every six or eight people--to 5,000. Most days, those employees are at customer sites, in their cars, or at home. "We've clearly identified real estate savings as part of the strategy to improve our competitiveness," says Lee A. Dayton, IBM's general manager of real estate services. IBM wants to get rid of 40% of its office space over the next few years, and while some of the savings will come from layoffs, Dayton figures that office efficiencies such as telecommuting will account for about half the savings.

American Telephone & Telegraph Co., similarly, has turned 7,000 salespeople out of their mffices in the past year, equipping them with notebook computers and cellular telephones that let them set up shop anywhere. "For every $1 we invested in technology, we've saved $2 in real estate," says Robert L. Wolters, director of sales operations at AT&T's Business Network Sales Div.

CHICAGO SHUTTLE. But it's not just cost savings that nudge companies toward telecommuting. "We're finally coming to the conclusion that the office is a terrible place to work," says Gil Gordon, a consultant in Monmouth Junction, N.J. "It's not just the wear and tear of getting there. It's the noise, the interruptions, the endless meetings."

HP, for example, has found that work-at-home employees of its Response Center, which offers technical support to customers over the phone, handle 20% more calls. Ameritech Corp. in Chicago sees similar efficiencies among its employees who telecommute. Now, anticipating new phone and fax business, it's pushing the idea to customers who need to cut back employee commuting to comply with the Clean Air Act. "That's a big motivator," says Ameritech Vice-Chairman Louis J. Rutigliano. "We're trying to play into that need."

Not everyone will be a winner in the emerging virtual office. As more employees telecommute, the echoing vacancies in commercial real estate will be prolonged. Although the nationwide rate of empty office space fell slightly in the first quarter, to 19.6%, many cities still have near-record vacancy levels. And depressed architectural firms may never again see the lofty employment numbers generated by the 1980s building boom.

But telecommuting is clearly a growth industry. So strong is its appeal that some people are giving up fast-track careers for the chance to work at home. Consider Alison Holt Brummelkamp. "I was working 70 hours a week. I never saw my kids," she says. Brummelkamp took a hefty pay cut and gave up her title as vice-president at public relations agency Golin-Harris Communications Inc. in Los Angeles. Now, she works a four-day week, three of them telecommuting from home. It's a choice that is changing the way companies, and their employees, do business.

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