By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Even in her 47-miles-to-the-gallon Toyota Prius, budget analyst Christina Tolson said, she knew she was spending too much on gas driving to and from the District every day. She also knew that the 90 minutes each way she spent commuting from and to Charles County could be used for other things, such as hanging out with her 11-year-old son.
So, a month ago, Tolson made a change. At least one day a week, she goes to a telework center in Waldorf, cutting her 43-mile commute to 11 miles.
"It keeps me closer to home; I like that," said Tolson, who works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I'd like to extend it to more days a week if I can."
As gas prices have exceeded $4 a gallon, Tolson is among a growing number of government and private-sector employees turning to telework centers, usually government-funded spaces that offer the perks of an office, including copy machines and water coolers, much closer to home.
In September, 253 people in the Washington region were registered to use the centers. That figure is now 415.
Although the spike in gas prices might be driving the increase, advocates for telecommuting say it's a matter of time before the trend catches fire. For a generation that came of age texting and instant-messaging, driving two hours to sit at a cubicle outside the boss's office doesn't make sense if there's an office down the street. And as that generation replaces an older set of supervisors, businesses will become more open to the idea of remote offices, teleworkers say.
"I think it's going to be just logical," said Joyce Twohig Larrick, director of the telework center at Bowie State University.
The centers -- 14 from Southern Maryland to West Virginia -- have been around for more than a decade, serving federal employees who do not want to commute but who lack the equipment or ability to work from home. The centers also offer something home-based employees might miss: co-workers.
In Waldorf, Tolson counts a training coordinator for the Department of Defense and a program assistant for the Food and Drug Administration among her colleagues. In Bowie, Larrick plays office mom to telecommuters, including a legal administrative specialist for the Office of Personnel Management and a manager for an information technology company.
"That's one thing that I have heard many people say, that they work better in a group kind of situation," Larrick said. "You'll find that many of the government workers will go to lunch together."
Private businesses or federal agencies rent space in the centers from the U.S. General Services Administration (usually for about $25 a day), and the GSA invests $3.5 million in them, said Sam Hunter, the agency's assistant commissioner of applied science.
Larrick said that since gas prices have been going up, she has seen a spike in the number of callers asking about telecommuting. Jill Wathen, director of three telework centers in Southern Maryland, said she received 50 percent more calls during the first quarter of the year than in the same period last year.
The centers look and feel like almost any D.C. government office. Gray dividers separate cubicles stocked with sleek phones and flat-screen monitors. The constant blowing of the air conditioner is occasionally drowned out by inter-cubicle conversation. There's a fax machine, a water cooler and a kitchenette.
"Everything I can do at [Patuxent River Naval Air Station], I can do here," said Mary Ellen Knight, a buyer for the Naval Air Warfare Center who drives about 17 miles from Mechanicsville once a week to avoid the added miles of driving onto the military base. "It's great. I'd recommend it to anybody."
In May, Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership that advocates telecommuting and that tracks legislation, did an online survey of how gas prices were affecting people's work habits. With 377 responses, the group found that most people were likely to investigate telecommuting when gas hit $3.75 a gallon.
"Clearly, we're very much over $3.75," said Cindy Auten, general manager for Telework Exchange.
About four years ago, Federal Technology Corp., an information technology company then in Falls Church, moved a major section of its operations to the telework center at Bowie State. The company found that most of its employees worked in the Crofton-Bowie area, and decided that it didn't make sense for them to be commuting to Virginia every day, said Amy Foster, an on-site manager for the company.
Foster drives from Crofton, a 7.5-mile trip, in her Chevy Silverado 1500, which gets 14 miles to the gallon in the city. "We were all from this area. Everybody was. So, why not?" she said, sitting in a cubicle filled with pink, purple and yellow Post-it notes. "It's better coming here."
Amy's boss (and her father), Michael Foster, works from his home in Bowie. He said the move to the telework center was a simple decision.
"I basically gave my folks a pay raise when we moved across town," he said. "Gas prices were kind of going up at that time. When you start pushing $3 a gallon, that was a big deal for everybody," he said.
But as a manager who thrived on interpersonal communication, the shift to meetings via conference call and communication via instant messenger posed challenges. When his employees first started working in Bowie, Foster would drop in to the center at least two days a week. He said that in the past three weeks, he hasn't been there at all, and that he doesn't think productivity has been affected.
"It took me a while, because I was always an in-the-office person. . . . I wanted to go by and say hi to everybody," Foster said. "That's a big difference now. You don't do that."
Some workers at the centers said that although they don't get the face time with supervisors that they would in the main office, they don't mind.
"It gives me a life, working here," said John Tully, who is employed in finance for the Transportation Security Administration. He rides the MARC train to Bowie from Baltimore every day instead of commuting to Arlington. "All I did was commute, work, go home, sleep."
Some said reluctance from bosses who insist that productivity would slide if employees worked remotely has kept some potential telecommuters stuck downtown.
"How do you change the supervisors' opinion? That's the struggle," said Wathen, director of the Southern Maryland centers. "It's a cultural change that has to happen."
In federal circles, the telework movement got a boost last year when the GSA announced a plan to have 50 percent of its eligible employees telecommuting from home or at a center at least one day a week by the end of 2010.
Although no one seems to dispute that telecommuting can save time and gas money, officials with the National Federation of Federal Employees union said the GSA is not as committed to the trend as the agency says. Union officials said that in labor negotiations, GSA supervisors would not give up their right to revoke teleworking privileges at any time, for any reason.
"They're using [telework] as a perk, rather than as a condition of employment," said Jack Hanley, the union's GSA council president.
GSA officials said the numbers are slowly climbing as more people adjust their work habits because of gas prices, and the agency already has achieved its goal of 20 percent of employees working from home or a center at least one day a week.
The next step? Convincing the older employees in management roles that telecommuting is valuable.
"The reality is most people my age have not been confronted with this," said the GSA's Hunter. "We've actually begun to create programs not for our teleworkers but for our managers on how to work with the teleworker."