HOME WORK - More employees perform work from home computers

Brenda Marks, Special to the Register April 06, 2003

Nancy Roche works from her Clinton home at least 10 hours a week, processing medical claims. Chris Volpe/Register
For six years, Nancy Roche has successfully balanced family life with a part-time job.

The claims processor for Connecticut Medical Claims Management Inc. credits her accomplishments to telecommuting. Roche, who has two young children, works at least 10 hours a week from home and another 10 to 15 hours in the company’s office in Guilford.

"When I came to work for the company, I needed flexibility," she said.

Roche’s husband, Kevin Roche, is a police officer in Old Saybrook, so his shift changes from week to week. By Nancy Roche working part time at home, the couple saves on day care because she can adjust her hours based on her husband’s shift. She also saves on travel time and gas for her car.

There’s another benefit, she said.

"When I work from home, I don’t get dressed up," she said. "I can work in my sweats."

Thanks to advances in technology and companies being more open to the idea, Roche is one of an estimated 28 million Americans who work an average of two days from home each week.

Of those, about 117,000 are Connecticut residents, according to Telecommute Connecticut!, a state-funded project that helps companies establish telecommuting programs.

Jean Stimolo, executive director of Rideworks, said telecommuting is ideal for some people. Rideworks is a nonprofit agency that helps people commute to work by carpool, vanpool, bus, train or telecommuting.

"Even if it’s one day a week, they really get to focus and get projects done," she said. "Employees get a sense of satisfaction. It’s a great work option."

Array of benefits: Telecommuting eases traffic congestion, reduces the need for companies to add costly space, cuts utility costs and makes companies attractive for recruiting tech-savvy workers, proponents say.

Employees can become more productive via telecommuting, and it reduces absenteeism, said Timothy Kane, president of the International Telework Association and Council.

"We’ve seen companies shave 28 percent off of their office needs by (instituting a telecommuting program)," he said.

The council defines telecommuters as people who work outside of a company facility for two or more days a week.

"That hones the definition down from day extenders who may work at the office, but check their e-mail at home," Kane said.

The numbers of telecommuters are increasing. "The growth really sped up, increasing exponentially since 1998," Kane said.

According to a 1999 ITAC survey, there were 19 million telecommuters in the United States that year. By 2001, the number had grown to 28 million.

Of those, companies with 1,500 or more employees account for 12 million. The rest work at business with fewer than 1,500 employees.

Kane said several factors are spurring the trend:

• The spread of broadband, or DSL high-speed connectivity, makes home computing speed similar to being in the office.

• Security — in the form of encryption methods that ensure the safety of data sent over the Web — has improved to the point that companies feel more secure about people accessing corporate information from the outside.

• Telecommuting is seen as a top perk among information technology workers.

• As baby boomers begin to exit the workforce, telecommuting is allowing them to semi-retire by continuing to work from home without having to go into an office on a daily basis.

Technology drives trend: Beverly Levy, spokeswoman for SBC SNET, said parent company SBC Communications Inc. has seen dramatic growth in its DSL business since launching the service in 13 states, including Connecticut, in January 2000.

"Nationally, we’ve seen the growth of DSL in all of the 13 states," she said. "It is one of our lead products."

The number of SBC Yahoo! DSL subscribers rose from 767,000 in the fourth quarter of 2000 to 2.2 million the same quarter in 2002. SBC does not break down customer numbers by state.

SBC SNET encourages some of its own workers to telecommute part time, Levy said.

Chris Ward, an analyst for SBC, provides on-call computer support for the company from his home on a part-time basis. Ward works from the office most of the time, but one week out of every five he covers the nightshift and works from home from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"The machines always have to be running," he said.

His telecommuting isn’t limited to the night shift: Ward worked from home during a recent snowstorm.

"Personally, it’s really nice to work at home for me because I think I get more focused," Ward said. "I have my own office. I shut myself in. And the DSL makes it just as fast as being at work. I have everything I need here at home."

If Ward finds a software problem in the system, he can contact other workers by phone or e-mail to fix the problem. He can log into a particular system in any of the 13 states the company serves, he said.

"Being at home doesn’t put limits on my job. As long as I have a fast computer connection, I can find the problem and fix it," he said.

Professionals are also getting into the act. John Levy, a New Haven dentist and husband of SNET’s Beverly Levy, said he telecommutes some days.

"I have the ability to get into office (records) by broadband network," he said. "I can see dental records, can see X-rays, images on our records there, photos of patients’ (mouths)."

He said he works four days in the office, but is available to patients seven days a week.

"I can diagnose and transmit information the instant I get a call that someone has a tooth that bothers them," Levy said.

State backing: Telecommute Connecticut!, which is state-funded with $450,000 a year through the Department of Transportation’s Rideworks program, helps companies meet their telecommuting needs. Its consultants will assess, for free, whether a company is appropriate for telecommuting, said James Lush, project manager.

Telecommute Connecticut! then helps the companies set telecommuting goals, develop a policy, conduct cost and benefits analyses, select and manage people who telecommute, and train staff to be telecommuters. It can take from six months to a year to roll out such a program.

"By having a structured policy and procedures it helps the company with their risk management issues," Lush said. "We assist employers in selecting the initial group of participants. Then we help train them and run a pilot program from four to six months."

Companies in Fairfield County also benefit from a federal tax-incentive program for traffic mitigation as part of the Clean Air Act, which includes any program that gets cars off the road.

At the end of January, there were about 105 participating companies statewide, Lush said.

Companies benefit, too: Managers say telecommuting is working for their companies.

Mathilde G. McCoy, president and owner of Connecticut Medical Claims Management, said five of her 11 employees do some telecommuting.

"Benefits for the company are we get very good employees who have skills we need but who aren’t available from nine to five because of childcare issues," she said.

McCoy said productivity has increased, as well. "We see the billing that is generated," she said.

She said there aren’t many drawbacks because workers are required to spend a number of hours a week in the office.

The downside: SBC’s Ward said the major drawback to telecommuting is losing the social aspect of work.

"If I worked from home all of the time, I’d miss that contact," Ward said. "Coming in at least half of the week meets my needs."

Telecommuters have to guard against isolationism and communication problems, Kane said.

"Those can be overcome through training," he said. "You have to rely on different tools to communicate. Face to face used to be easy, but now you have to rely on e-mail, instant messaging and the phone."

Kane said another drawback to telecommuting is the tendency for companies to have "ad hoc" programs that can become chaotic and burdensome. It is important to bring in human resources professionals and establish policies, procedures, a selection process and assessment practices for a telecommuting program, he said.

"Companies often are not institutionalizing a program, and that can become unwieldy to manage. You need policies and procedures," he said.

©New Haven Register 2003