A New Olympic Event: Getting To Work

As Atlanta girds for gridlock, companies get creative

On a normal summer day, about 125,000 Atlantans commute downtown in grueling, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Add some 2 million visitors who are expected to descend on Atlanta in mid-July for this summer's Olympic Games, and the picture can be scary. But the longest commute for Douglas G. Thomas, a manager at Atlanta Gas Light Co. will be a 10-minute drive from his home in Suwanee, Ga., to a satellite office. Most days, he'll stay home, communicating with his colleagues via laptop. "I'm looking forward to it. I'll be able to escape from that traffic," he says.

Count Thomas among an estimated 100,000 Atlantans who, during the 17-day Olympic Games, will take part in perhaps the largest-ever mass experiment in telecommuting.

VACATION? Olympic organizers have asked Atlantans to cut local traffic in half during the event, and businesses are scrambling to come up with creative ways to get their employees to work. Rather than cope with that, many employers are simply encouraging workers to work from home, take vacation time, or volunteer at Olympic venues. For instance, about two-thirds of Coca-Cola Co.'s 5,000 or so local employees will be working at the company's Olympic theme park, World of Coca-Cola museum, and pin-trading center, as well as at other Olympic sites.

For those who must get to the office, companies are doing everything from organizing van pools and hiring private bus companies to running a 6 a.m.-3 p.m. work shift. As Kelly Love, program manager for Commute Connections, a metropolitan-planning outfit, warns: "Coping with the games will be a full-time job for Atlanta businesses."

Executives at Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc. are banking in part on telecommuting to get them through the Games. Located at ground zero of the "Olympic Ring," the center of competitive activity, the producer of CNN, Headline News, and the Cartoon Network can't escape the hoopla. To ease the burden, TBS has set up an additional 500 phone lines to allow more than 1,500 employees to work from home. TBS teleworkers can pick up mail and send faxes at a local Mail Boxes Etc. and stay in touch with colleagues through a TBS "intranet"--an electronic bulletin board. For its 2,000 other employees, TBS has doled out monthly passes for the city's public-transportation system and hired its own shuttle bus.

UPS United Parcel Service Inc. is parking its trucks and asking a small army of brown-uniformed delivery folk to hit the sidewalks. During the games, only 16 drivers will go into the Olympic ring. Instead of driving to their usual 150 different parking locations and 50 dock points, they will each park and unload to 150 UPS "walkers." From there, the walkers will use public transportation to get downtown and will deliver packages on foot. First deliveries will be made at 6 a.m. instead of 10:30 a.m.

Staggered hours alone may not be enough. To avoid traffic jams and street closures, employees at SunTrust Banks Inc., headquartered in downtown Atlanta, plan to work from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Some will have to rise as early as 4 a.m. to get downtown at such an early hour. At the bank's operations center, where checks must be processed as usual, cots are being brought in for employees who can't make it home. For them, as for most native Atlantans, getting through the Games will be a gold-medal feat.