MILLIONS OF AMERICANS commute to work five days a week, primarily by car or bus, in a massive population movement which accounts for much of the country's gasoline consumption, traffic congestion and air pollution, and which is a major source of mental and physical stress.

There are many possible ways to ameliorate these problems, but, surprisingly, virtually no attention has been paid to the contribution which could be made by working at home one or two days a week.

While only a minority of workers would be able to use this option, their impact on reducing gasoline use and alleviating other conditions related to commuting could be quite pronounced. Moreover, the size of such a group could increase rapidly and substantially in the next few years.

If 10 percent of those who commute to work each weekday were to start working at home two days each week, this would reduce the volume of such travel by 4 percent. This is not a large number in the absolute, but significant when compared to the 3 to 5 percent overall shortfall in petroleum availability which bought on the recent gasoline lines.

Although the idea that most work must be done away from home is deeply ingrained, it has not always been regarded as the norm. Even manufacturing work was typically carried out at home in the "cottage industry" system before the Industrial Revolution concentrated work in factories and introduced the rigid disciplines of the factory process -- disciplines that were widely applied to office workers as well.

The rationale for the change in work location was clear at the time. The new machines required the concentration of workers in the places where they were located.

But while the identification of work with a place away from home continues for most workers, many of the underlying conditions which brought about the shift from cottage industries to central workplaces no longer hold true.

For one thing, there have been extraordinary changes in the nature of jobs. While manufacturing has remained at one quarter of total employment over the last 50 years, the share of service industries has risen from 40 to over 60 percent. And, according to a recent study, more than 50 percent of all U.S. jobs are now centered in information-related activities. Our economy has become far less dependent on muscle power and far more dependent on professional, technical and clerical skills.

Even more far-reaching have been the changes in the nature of the "machinery." Some of the most dramatic have emerged within the past decade through the rapid advances in computerization and electronic chip-technology. Revolution in reverse

Future historians may well view this period as an Industrial Revolution in reverse, since it is providing the working tools that make it possible to move a growing number of employes out of centralized workplaces into new types of "cottage" industries. Consider just a few of the changes that make work at home far more feasible than just a few years ago:

Some of today's hand-held "programmable" scientific calculators can be used to carry out complex calculations that less than a decade earlier could only be handled by the largest computers available. Even the less advanced hand-held calculators perform functions that not long ago required bulky office machines or even computers.

Through computer terminals, persons working at home can gain access to the latest computer facilities as well as to vast quantities of stored data. Such terminals are available in portable form and can be readily used in homes if they are connected to a telephone.

In the field of economics, for example, a consulting firm called Data Resources Inc., provides its subscribers with access to a potential total of about 5 million economic and related series. The terminals can also be used to produce econometric and other statistical analyses with respect to these data, transform the results into graphs and build various economic models.

Portable machines now are widely used to record dictation previously taken down in shorthand by secretaries in an office. It is also possible for persons working at home to use the telephone to dictate directly into machines located in their offices and to listen to playbacks of relevant passages.

The contents of large files and entire libraries can be reduced to very small proportions and encoded on 4-by-6-inch microfiche film sheets, which can then be carried home and used to display the desired pages on portable viewing machines. A microfiche stack an inch high can incorporate the contents of as many as 20,000 pages of printed material. Paperless office

With such technological advances, working part of the time at home is feasible for engineers, computer programmers, physical and social scientists, medical researchers, lawyers, accountants, insurance company employes and salespeople. This list, moreover, is not exhaustive.

A firm called Micronet Inc. recently opened a "paperless office" in Washington, which demonstrates how existing technologies can be employed to carry out virtually all office tasks with completely automated equipment -- equipment that generally can also be used at home.

Nor are the opportunities for changes in work location confined to professional and clerical work. In factories and laboratories, many tasks now are carried out through remote control devices, and it is possible to operate some of these devices from more distant locations.

In the next decade or so, moreover, the sophistication of machines available at home is likely to increase tremendously, a trend that is already foreshadowed by the beginning emergence of a market for home computers. A growing number of homes is likely to become equipped with machines that combine the functions of television sets, videophones, computer terminals, electronic files and word and data processing systems and that can be directly connected with offices and other homes.

These technological advances to not by themselves provide sufficient proof that much more work can be done at home. Skeptics offer at least three lines of argument to show that such a change in working patterns would not be practical.

The first, most obvious objection usually is: If people work at home, how can one tell how well they are doing or whether they are working at all?

The answer is that, in judging the performance of an employe working in an office or other central workplace, personnel management experts generally reject the notion that conclusions should be based on a worker's input, as measured by hours spent at the place of work. Instead, they hold that performance should be judged by output and its relation to the firm's objectives. For many employes, these criteria can be applied just as readily when the work is done at home.

A second argument is that work at home would cut off employes from needed contacts with their co-workers and others. Clearly, such contacts are often highly important for effective performance and for employe morale.

But this argument, too, is not as convincing as might appear at first sight. Much of today's communication among employes takes place over the telephone, even for people working in the same building. Moreover, these proposals call for work at home only part of each week, leaving ample opportunity for face-to-face contacts with other employes.

Finally, it is argued that working at home will simply prove impractical: too many distractions and the lack of a quiet place in which to work.

In many cases, the opposite is likely to be true. Many working in offices often find themselves unable to finish planned work because of interruptions by co-workers or unnecessary internal meetings. And there are many instances of employes working on tight deadlines finding that the only way to get the job done in time is to work at home because this involves far less distraction and interruption.

Working at home should be an entirely voluntary option, to be used only where it is convenient and desirable for the individual worker as well as for the firm.

Even so, any such change is likely to encounter considerable resistance within many companies and unions, if only because established patterns are inherently difficult to change. If the working at home alternative is to make any headway, therefore, it is important that its advantages for individuals, firms and the public generally be fully understood. Savings in working time

The most obvious advantage for workers is the time gained by not commuting every day. Potential reductions in work time are currently a major issue in labor-management negotiations; the reduction in work-related time proposed here is one way by which workers can gain added time without imposing extra costs on management.

The total time saved can be quite substantial: An employe who drives an hour to work would save 16 hours in commuting time each month, or the equivalent of two 8-hour workdays, by working at home two days a week. In addition, he would save the money he would otherwise have had to spend on gasoline, parking fees and outside lunches.

Doing more work at home could improve the quality of life for many -- though by no means all -- individuals and families. There could be a better division between work and leisure during the day. Married couples could spend more time with each other and their children and still get as much work done as before. The task of taking care of youngsters, older people and pets would be considerably facilitated. And many more people might be able to engage in paid productive work who are now precluded because of the commuting requirement.

Business firms, too, can be expected to gain important benefits from the proposed arrangements -- benefits that are likely to outweigh the extra burdens of coordinating individual work schedules. Worker productivity and satisfaction are likely to rise, while the pool of available labor with special skills would be enlarged.

There also can be some quite specific benefits. Some firms, for example, encourage engineers, computer programmers and others to work on computer terminals at home so that they can gain faster access to regular computer facilities than is possible from the office during regular hours.

What will it take to encourage much more widespread relience on working at home for at least part of each week? No single dramatic step is likely to provide the solution, nor is this a case for extensive government subsidies. Instead, there is need for a concerted effort to bring this issue more clearly into the national consciousness.

Business firms, unions and employes need to take a hard look at existing work patterns to ascertain which jobs can be carried out only in central workplaces and which can at least partly be carried out at home. A new look at management practices, union rules and government laws and regulations is required to determine whether they unduly discourage work at home; government should fund research in the area.

A really serious effort along these lines could bring a far larger shift toward work at home than most consider possible. Doing more work at home is one way to help solve some of the country's most persistent problems, a way which promises major benefits without hardships.

Why not give it a try?