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Monday, September 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Telecommuting fails to fulfill high hopes

Seattle Times staff reporter

Liz Rankin was Seattle's champion of telecommuting, promising it would cut costs for businesses and reduce traffic congestion.

Then she tried it.

Her goal was one day a week. She found it hard to do even one day a month. Eventually, she stopped trying.

"I'm sorry it wouldn't work. But my job is such it just wouldn't," says Rankin, 53, who used to head the city's efforts to reduce commuter congestion and now heads communications for the city transportation department.

She's not alone. Telecommuting, once considered a promising weapon against congestion, has largely fizzled here. In fact, more people ride their bikes to work in Washington state than get there via computer.

A decade ago, federal research predicted that as much as 10.4 percent of the nation's work force would, by decade's end, routinely work out of their homes or nearby telework centers several days a week.

"Certainly those projections have not come through," says John Niles, president of the Seattle-based research firm Global Telematics.

Telecommuting was expected to work best in areas lousy with traffic. Yet in King County, which suffers some of the worst congestion in the nation, only 0.6 percent of workers telecommute more than two days a week on average, according to a survey of the state's largest employers. The statewide figure is slightly higher at 0.7 percent.

Meanwhile, 66 percent of commute trips statewide are made by workers driving alone, 14 percent by carpool and 11 percent by bus.

National studies that show higher percentages of telecommuting often include consultants and self-employed people who work from a home office, experts say. Telecommuting, also called telework, typically means working at home or a nearby center in lieu of driving to an office.

There are some success stories. Washington Dental Service in Seattle says more than 60 percent of its workers have signed up to telecommute. Microsoft does not track the number of employees who telecommute.

But reality hasn't met expectation.

Niles, a former true believer who says he was "caught up in the hype," made this prediction 12 years ago: "In the 21st century, the main office will be shrinking toward invisibility — working at home will satisfy some; working near home will satisfy the rest."

What happened?

"You might just say it's proven too hard to do," Niles says.

It largely boils down to the need for people who work together to meet face to face, he and others say.

Managers bear some of the blame, says Cathy Cole, head of Commuter Challenge, a nonprofit group that promotes ways for companies to reduce commute trips. Supervisors keep asking, "How do I know they are working if I can't see them?" she says.

But workers themselves often find that telecommuting isn't as good as billed.

A survey of more than 1,300 workers last year by the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that telecommuters work more often during their vacations and feel less able to balance their work and personal lives.

"It's a lot harder than people think it's going to be," says Leon Litchfield, director of research for the center. "Your home issues are in your face, but you're also supposed to be working. Your co-workers or managers may (say) 'Oh, they're telecommuting so I can call them anytime.' It becomes a 24/7 kind of job even though that's not what you thought you were bargaining for."

Telecommuting worked OK for Rankin when she headed the city's program to reduce commute trips. Then she became head of communications for the transportation department. She carpools to make the six-mile commute from her home in Hawthorne Hills in Seattle.

Every time she tried to work from home, "something would come up," she says.

"It would either be clear on e-mail that something was going on, or people would call me and I needed to be physically there to pull people into a meeting. I felt unplugged and away from the people I needed to talk to."

During preparations to demolish the Kingdome last year, Rankin was part of the city's media team. While working from home, she missed some spontaneous meetings.

She decided it was best to just go into work — a difficult admission.

"I admire people who do it," she says. "For me it just wouldn't work."

Computers, telephones and video cameras simply can't replace meeting with people face to face, Niles says. "Supervisors know it's easier to supervise people when they are close to you. You can get to them, you can look over their shoulder when you want to. People who want to work together can slide their chairs together.

"These things are very hard to do with telecommunications and are going to continue to be hard to do," Niles says.

Those drawbacks helped persuade Wayne Donaldson, director of audits for the state Department of Transportation, to reject telecommuting for his employees.

"We just can't go there," he says.

Yuki Durham, a University of Washington research librarian who used to telecommute one day a week, found herself trying to do several things at once when at home.

"You're there if the repairman is coming, or you can put that load of laundry in," she says. "That gets in the way of your productivity a little bit."

It was also difficult to keep track of the time spent on work vs. personal chores, she says.

Some experts believe telecommuting will eventually live up to its promise once kinks are worked out.

"I think we're in the infancy of telecommuting," says Litchfield, with the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

Companies can't just plop a computer in an employee's home and think everything is going to be fine, he says. There needs to be more preparation.

One company had an in-house lab to test telecommuting. Workers would spend a couple of weeks in the lab to give them a taste of what it would be like working out of sight of managers and co-workers.

And Gil Gordon, a nationally known telecommuting consultant based in New Jersey, says telecommuting "is a rapidly morphing concept."

"People are broadening their thinking away from either you are a telecommuter or you're not," he says. "Now they are starting to say 'work where you work best.' "

Washington Dental Service, based in Seattle, embraced telecommuting six years ago. Today of the more than 60 percent of its employees who signed up to telecommute, only 20 percent do so regularly, says Matthew Fairfax, the firm's human-resources manager.

"I spend every Friday telecommuting," Fairfax says. "I know when I'm working at home that's eight hours of uninterrupted time."

But Niles says telecommuting has "reached natural limits."

He should know. Niles ran a telecommuting center in Ballard during the early 1990s aimed at Microsoft workers who didn't want to face Highway 520 every day.

The center lasted less than two years.

"No one was in there at the end," he says. "It's just the dog that wouldn't hunt."

Andrew Garber can be reached at 206-464-2595 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

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