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For Work, There's No Place Like Home

But Telework Success Requires Preparation, Communication

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page K01

A typical workday for Marge Adams, work/life program manager for the Department of Agriculture, involves policy writing, customer service, and work groups and staff meetings.

But on Mondays and Thursdays, rather than spending three hours each day commuting between Manassas and Washington, she puts on a pair of jeans and works at a computer at home. "It's just like being in the office, but I'm more accessible because in the office I may be out at a meeting or down the hall," said Adams, 53.

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In 1997, when Adams began teleworking, about 11.6 million U.S. teleworkers, also called telecommuters, worked at home during business hours at least one day per month.

By 2003, that number had more than doubled to 23.5 million, according to the International Telework Association and Council (ITAC), based in Silver Spring.

Why the growth? The federal government and many other large employers are encouraging some employees to telework in part because it promotes environmental friendliness (by putting fewer cars on the road) and family friendliness (by enabling workers to have a more flexible day and to devote time saved commuting to family activities), said Stan Kaczmarczyk, director of the Innovative Workplaces Division for the General Services Administration.

He added that teleworking also provides a means of maintaining operations in case of a government shutdown, a larger concern since Sept. 11, 2001.

Recent advances in technology, including high-speed Internet access, wireless technology and the ability to access an office network remotely in a secure way, are other reasons for growth, said Robert L. Smith, executive director of the ITAC.

Of course, teleworking is not for everyone. Some jobs do not lend themselves to off-site work. "No one would even ask if a Starbucks barista can work from home," said Ann W. Denison, director of human resources for SRA International Inc., a Fairfax-based information technology services company. "The nature of the job is the determinant of whether you can do this."

So is the nature of the industry. In technology services, for example, much of the business involves face-to-face meetings with clients and usually, "the client expectation is for you to be there," Denison said.

Personality matters, too. People who need frequent human contact or lack a strong work ethic may not succeed at working from home, noted Kaczmarczyk. He said the best candidates are employees who perform knowledge work, use computers heavily and are "reliable, productive, trustworthy on the job, . . . motivated and able to work on their own."

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