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.
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."
If teleworking interests you, find out whether your employer has a telework program and, if so, what if any equipment (such as a laptop computer, cell phone or remote-access software) is provided to regular teleworkers. Then speak to your supervisor about trying the arrangement on a trial basis, Kaczmarczyk advised.
Experts stressed the importance of being accessible to your colleagues regularly once you start teleworking. That means answering e-mails promptly, checking in regularly with your supervisor and co-workers, and letting people know you're available. Adams does that by e-mailing a reminder to her division director that she is teleworking each morning that she is at home.
Set some boundaries and ground rules at home to keep distractions to a minimum, suggested Cheryl Demas, author of "It's a Jungle Out There and a Zoo in Here: Run Your Home Business Without Letting It Overrun You" (Warner Business Books, 2003).
Create a separate work space where you can close the door if you need to be isolated from household activities to work. Have someone else care for infants and toddlers while you make phone calls or need quiet. Teach older kids about your expectations for their behavior when you're working and tell them whether they can use your computer or move papers on your desk at other times. Keep loud or active pets away from your work space.
Remember to stretch and get up from the desk often enough to prevent soreness, said Adams, who takes her dog for a walk instead of taking a long lunch break. She also does neck and back exercises at her desk.
Be flexible about rearranging your schedule if your supervisor wants you to come in for an on-site meeting or event on one of your telework days, Adams added.
Also, act professionally during your work hours from home, she said, so that people stop associating working at home with "being in PJs and bunny slippers and having a barking dog."
Adams herself is trying to eliminate that stereotype by working hard and accomplishing much on her two days at home -- and she loves the arrangement. "If I ever look for another job, it would be a requirement that the company offers telework," she said.