The FedEx and UPS trucks that stream through Thomas Point Court each day might be headed to any number of places: the stockbroker, the financial executive, the roofing company, the computer programming firm.
Or, perhaps, to Jetson Group Inc., a national media consulting business located one floor down from Julie Conrad's kitchen.
"The stay-at-home moms are under the impression that we don't work because we're home so much," said Conrad, 41, who along with her husband runs three businesses out of the basement of her Anne Arundel County house. "I guess they think FedEx is delivering catalogue merchandise!"
Forget the office park; Thomas Point Court is an office cul-de-sac, with more than a half-dozen businesses quietly tucked in the basements and spare rooms of its spacious, upscale homes. The scene is repeated on thousands of such streets, from the shores of the Chesapeake to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, where legions of workers are redefining the rhythms and rituals of their neighborhoods by ditching the commute and working out of their homes.
On some streets, the change is signaled by the squadron of delivery trucks that come and go each day. On others, home-based workers gather at the school bus stop for morning chatter or congregate at community mailboxes for a midday huddle. Once-listless subdivisions are suddenly alive with daytime activity, as the technology revolution finally, and literally, comes home.
"When I started working at home, I was absolutely alone in this neighborhood," said Beverly Williams, who runs the American Association of Home-Based Businesses out of her Rockville house. "There is now constant traffic during the day because so many people have home-based businesses around here. . . .
"I think it has a real positive impact on the community, because we're spending our money here and spending more of our time here. It makes it a real neighborhood."
More than 11 percent of the Washington area's 2.3 million households now include employees who regularly telecommute, according to a 1998 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments survey, and that doesn't count tens of thousands more who run their own businesses. Nationally, the number of entrepreneurs and employees working at home has quadrupled this decade to 18 million, according to the International Telework Association & Council.
This rapid expansion is being driven in large part by leaps in technology, as high-speed Internet access, inexpensive computers and sophisticated telephone equipment allow virtual offices to flourish.
New home businesses also tend to be quiet and white collar, a far cry from the busy walk-in clinics and noisy backyard repair shops that so riled neighbors in the past. In Herndon, town officials are considering relaxed zoning rules for home businesses now that most of them don't bring increased traffic and clamor.
That certainly holds true for tiny Thomas Point Court, a woodsy, nine-year-old street located not far from the Thomas Point lighthouse outside Annapolis. About half of the cul-de-sac's 14 stately residences boast hidden home offices of one kind or another, from Julie and Keith Conrad's adjoining basement studies to the first-floor headquarters of Capital Roofing Inc.
From a small office at the front of their home outfitted with a fax machine, computer system and a special mail drop, Lucinda Browne and her husband, Albert Jr., handle the quieter tasks of their roofing business. The rest of the operation -- trucks, equipment and other noisy stuff -- is located at a satellite office in Landover.
Lucinda Browne says the best thing about working at home is being able to spend more time with her teenage son -- a sentiment shared by countless other parents in the same situation. Instead of a harrowing commute, more moms and dads say they can help out with the neighborhood car pool. The afternoon coffee break often includes homemade cookies and a tall, cool glass of milk.
"I'm more available this way," Browne said, just before heading out the door for an afternoon soccer match. "I'm more available to be a full-time mom."
Just up the street, Mike Walsh works as a stockbroker and portfolio manager for CIBC Oppenheimer from a home office outfitted with four phone lines and bedecked in oriental rugs. He, too, relishes the access that working at home gives him to his 9-year-old daughter, whom he shares in a joint-custody arrangement.
But like many other home-based workers, Walsh stresses that the days are still long and productive. With about 85 clients to serve, Walsh said he must maintain a sharp boundary between his job and his life just outside the den door. Work starts at 8:30 a.m. and rarely ends before 6:30 p.m.; lunch breaks out of the home are infrequent.
No one, in other words, is working in a bathrobe and slippers -- though a suit and tie are equally rare.
"I only come into this room to work," said Walsh, wearing a pair of shorts and a polo shirt on one recent workday. "This is a totally dedicated office. I don't come here on the weekends to lounge or to read a good book. . . . You have to be very focused, and you have to be in your office and be productive. If you didn't do that, the whole system would break down."
Others on Thomas Point Court agree, and many say it is often hard to stop themselves from working late without the normal ebb and flow of an office. As a result, there is relatively little interaction between neighbors during the workday.
"It's sort of like if you had two storefronts right next to each other. You wouldn't expect the clerks to always be coming out from behind the counter to talk to each other," Browne said. "They're too busy working."
In other neighborhoods, however, home-based workers frequently seek out their peers to cope with the isolation of toiling alone. In Waldorf, one group of parents who work at home regularly meets at a school bus stop in the morning to chat and catch up on gossip. In an Annandale subdivision, a cluster of mailboxes serves the same purpose at noon.
And in Arlington, consultant John Edwards says a coffee shop has become a gathering place for telecommuters and home-based entrepreneurs -- both to meet clients and each other.
"That's what Starbucks and those kind of places are great for," said Edwards, the incoming president of ITAC, the teleworking organization. "The local coffee shops and the local copy shops get a lot of business they wouldn't otherwise get if people were working downtown in an office."
Working from home isn't for everyone, of course. Many who have worked in offices, for example, miss the sense of camaraderie and kinship that develops between groups of fellow employees.
"When you're telecommuting, the paranoia and everything can get overwhelming," said Rachel Tretchik, a Hyattsville software programmer for Digital Systems International Corp. who hopes to return to an office environment. "I don't want to telecommute anymore. I want people for a while."
And then there are perilous questions of neighborhood etiquette.
On Thomas Point Court, Keith Conrad said he has had to distance himself from neighbors who expect free tickets and other goodies because of his telephone and Internet marketing business, e-Sports Media Inc. "There's an intimacy and a connection in a community that really changes the dynamic" when one's business is in the home, said Conrad, 41.
The Conrads, who have five children between them, say they plan to stick with their home-based pursuits for reasons both professional and personal. The couple said they get more done while also spending more time together as a family.
"Our time is much more our own now," Julie Conrad said. "We have the flexibility to go to the marina or to the gym in the middle of the day because we know we can catch up later. . . . Our lives before were just total stress. We miss out on all of that now."
TOMORROW: How working at home affects the rest of the family, in Washington Business. TUESDAY: What you should have in your medicine cabinet -- and what you should throw out, in Health.
WEDNESDAY: Meals for every room in the house, in Food.
THURSDAY: Comfort zones -- making the areas that matter most welcoming and workable, in Home.
FRIDAY: Millennium special -- a look at the home of the future.
SATURDAY: Making your old house work, in Real Estate.