To policymakers aching to break up Northern Virginia's traffic gridlock and reduce the region's dangerously high car emissions, Richard Sleeman's home office means one less vehicle clogging roads between his subdivision in Sterling and the Fairfax County Government Center.
To Sleeman, 48, a computer systems administrator assigned to cubicle 838.7 in the Pennino Building on Government Center Parkway, working from home one day a week means a more productive day, more time with his wife and daughter and a lot less stress. He doesn't have to crawl through 20 miles of traffic along Route 7 and Fairfax County Parkway.
"I can do virtually everything at home short of a face-to-face meeting," said Sleeman, a 20-year veteran of county government who keeps track of billing and clinical information for the Community Services Board, which serves the mentally disabled and substance abusers in Fairfax. "And I get so much more done. People don't pop by to distract you."
Sleeman's work arrangement, dubbed telework, has become the norm for 350 county workers in Fairfax, the Washington-area local government leading the way in encouraging flexible work arrangements. Although teleworking has been the domain of private companies for years and is slowly catching on with the federal government, county governments are starting to recognize that salespeople and entrepreneurs aren't the only ones who can work from home.
The region's other county governments are slowly starting telework programs, too. In Maryland, about 40 Montgomery County employees work from home, 27 in Rockville and fewer than 50 in Anne Arundel County.
Loudoun County has 60 teleworkers, Arlington has about 20 and Alexandria is looking into a program, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which tracks teleworking in the region. Prince George's and Prince William counties do not have formal programs but allow some employees to work from home on an as-needed basis.
"It's a major behavior change for people who think, 'We work for the taxpayers, we're public servants and I need to be seen to be at work,' " said Carol Goldberg, the county's telework program manager, who devotes her workday to converting the desk-bound to telecommuters, training them and their bosses and making sure their home computers are hooked up with the county's.
Goldberg was managing the county's payroll department in 1995, when she was asked by the county Board of Supervisors to launch a pilot telework program for 50 employees. Now, she tries to round up 15 new teleworkers every month from a pool of 5,000 potential candidates in the county's workforce of 11,000 -- employees whose jobs lend themselves to independent, computer-based work.
The county has a teleworking goal. By 2005, 20 percent of the eligible employees should be logging on to computers from home at least one day a week. The target was set for the region two years ago by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments at the direction of Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), who served as the planning agency's chairman. The target in Fairfax is 1,000 workers.
"We've been more hidebound in the public sector, where employees are concerned that if they're out of sight, they'll be overlooked," Connolly said. "But local government employment is substantial and can make a big difference. We're hypocrites if we don't get into this game in a serious way."
The current crop in Fairfax is as diverse as the county's workforce: accountants, administrative assistants, analysts, buyers, cable producers, engineers, librarians, planners, real estate appraisers, social workers, human services workers, tax specialists, paralegals and police officers.
Not every cop walks a beat. Lt. Brett Reistad, for example, transferred last May to the internal affairs division, where he inspects command stations and other police buildings to ensure that policies and procedures are uniform. It's largely independent work, writing up inspection reports. Reistad, who worked patrol for a decade and criminal investigations for eight more years, is setting up an office in his Manassas home, where he plans to telework at least two days a month.
"It's a matter of taking a floppy disk home and working on the same document from home," he said.
The benefits he anticipates? A break from his 50-minute commute between Prince William and the Judicial Center and flexibility to be available should one of his four children and stepchildren get sick and need to stay home from school.
"The difference is taking a day of sick leave, versus sitting behind the computer and being productive," Reistad said.
Fairfax, the region's largest local government, is also the most proactive in encouraging teleworking one or two days a week. Managers are encouraged to suggest the arrangement to self-motivated employees whose jobs don't always require them to report to an office. Everyone gets a manual with tips on setting up a home office, accessing the county's computer network, forwarding phones and staying by the phone.
Bosses are encouraged to telework themselves. Sleeman, the systems administrator, supervises two computer analysts, both of whom telework.
Fairfax officials have a bureaucratic term for the ideal telework arrangement: transparency. It means that when an employee is talking on the phone or communicating electronically with a vendor, client or someone outside of county government, the person on the other end, ideally, has no idea the employee is at home, possibly in bathrobe or slippers.
"You could be a buyer in the department of purchasing and you could be in your cube and the vendors don't know where you are, and that's a good thing," Goldberg said.
The system is not for everyone.
Maha Bichay, a county accountant who works two days a week from her Springfield home, said she has encountered managers who oppose giving their workers such wide latitude in their workday.
"I run into people who say, 'Do you really work when you're at home?' " Bichay said. "But really, an employee can play here or there."
Bichay was one of the pioneers to test telecommuting seven years ago, when her two children were toddlers and she wanted to spend as much time as possible with them. Her husband's job requires a lot of travel, she said. Now, she is behind her computer at 7:30 a.m. so she can pick up her kids from school at 3:20 p.m., two days a week.
Her job is suited to independent work on the computer. She reconciles tax payments by Fairfax residents with the county's financial accounts. Besides providing a flexible schedule, the change to teleworking boosted Bichay's self-esteem at work, she said.
"It starts with your supervisor trusting you," she said. "They want to see that you can produce. You want to prove to them that you could do better when you're home. It becomes your responsibility."