Telecommuting Interest Soars

Paralegal Sherrie Bell works at a federally funded telecommuting center 15 miles from her home in Southern Maryland.
Paralegal Sherrie Bell works at a federally funded telecommuting center 15 miles from her home in Southern Maryland. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

When gas prices sped past $3 a gallon in the days after Hurricane Katrina, Sherrie Bell hit upon a quick way to avoid the pinch at the pump.

She decided to stop going to work.

Or at least stop working downtown. In a memo Thursday to her boss, Bell, a paralegal at the U.S. Education Department, requested permission to work two days a week from a federally funded telecommuting center 15 miles from her home in Southern Maryland.

"It's definitely the way of the future for workers," said Bell, 38, who first tried teleworking one day a week last fall instead of commuting 1 1/2 hours. "There's no doubt about it. It's such a cost-saving tool."

With gas prices in the Washington region among the highest in the nation, increasing numbers of beleaguered commuters are looking to trade two-hour treks on congested freeways for speedy telecommutes via the information superhighway, teleworking advocates say.

"Unfortunately, it takes a kind of unbelievable event like this to get people's attention and force them to change the way they do things," said Bob Smith, director of the Silver Spring-based ITAC, formerly known as the International Telework Association & Council.

Teleworking advocates -- including the federal government -- say they hope widespread consternation about rising fuel prices will prove to be the tipping point needed to bring about a telecommuting revolution. And they have been scrambling to convert the public to their cause.

Just days after the levees in New Orleans burst, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management sent out a government-wide memo urging telecommuting as a way to alleviate a post-Katrina gas shortage. Telework centers around the Washington region quickly offered free use of their space. And telecommuting experts say their phones have been ringing off the hook.

For years, transportation experts in Washington have dreamed of a boom in telecommuting as a way to ease traffic congestion and reduce the environmental impacts of car emissions. Every worker who begins telecommuting could reduce government transportation spending by $3,000, according to a study by George Washington University's Center for Economic Research.

But widespread telecommuting has not materialized. Although a newly released study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments shows the number of teleworkers has increased -- from 11.3 percent of commuters in 2001 to 12.8 percent in 2004 -- experts believe a much higher proportion of workers could telecommute.

While they are optimistic now, they say they recognize that efforts to encourage mass telecommuting have not fulfilled their expectations.

Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director of the council of governments, said the main obstacle to teleworking is that some bosses worry about supervising workers 100 miles away. "There is a strong level of resistance by middle managers," he said, even though studies have shown employees are more productive when teleworking.

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