Telecommuting Proves To Be Two-Way Street
Leesburg Firm, Employee Say Both Sides Win
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2004; Page LZ03

When Vivian Lewis decided that she wanted to hire Kristy Balwinski for a marketing position two years ago, Lewis knew she had a rough sell. Balwinski lived in Alexandria, about a one-hour commute from the Leesburg office of GeoConcepts Engineering Inc., a daily drive that kept her from jumping at the job offer.

Lewis, the company's founder, remembered a telecommuting program offered in Maryland and wondered whether Virginia had a similar one. She found a state-funded pilot program that had been launched in 2001, applied to join and was accepted as one of the first companies to participate in Telework!Va.

With that, she was able to snag Balwinski, who became one of the 400,000 people who now work from home in the Washington area, about 15 percent of the region's 2.6 million employees. That's up from 250,000 five years ago, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG).

The program has worked so well for both Balwinski and GeoConcepts, an environmental consulting firm, that the company has two more teleworkers and is turning three other employees into teleworkers.

Under the program administered by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation through COG, companies in Northern Virginia can receive up to $3,500 per employee for as many as 10 employees to cover costs of setting up a home office. The company and employee must be in Virginia, one of the only drawbacks, Lewis said. She has employees who live in the District, Maryland and West Virginia and commute more than an hour each way.

Balwinski, who recently moved to Lansdowne, teleworked two or three days a week when she lived in Alexandria. That option worked well, she said, because the company has many clients in the District and Alexandria. She would spend two days with clients there, then come to the Leesburg office to catch up on administrative work.

"I think it's a great benefit," Balwinski said. "It adds to a lot of flexibility for a lot of employees. It's a good recruiting feature to have within the company. I think it says a lot for the trust and teamwork about how the company is organized and running."

Now that Balwinski is living in Lansdowne, about five miles from downtown Leesburg, she still works from home twice a week because she has the equipment and her job lends itself to doing so.

Balwinski, a project manager and director of business development, said that when she began teleworking, she was nervous. She wondered whether she would get as much done from home. But she did.

As a result, Balwinski said, "it's made a lot more trust between managers and employees." People realize most can do just as much work from home, she said, "without a manager looking over your shoulder."

Lewis was thrilled with the results. "It worked for us; it worked for her," she said. "It increased her quality of life, and it let her know we cared enough to do this for her."

Telework!Va was founded in September 2001.Twelve companies participate, and seven others have signed a contract to do so, said Danette Campbell, telework resource center director.

When the program began, 56 companies showed interest, Campbell said. But with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the plunge in the economy, many of them no longer exist or teleworking is not a top priority as they try to overcome declines in business, Campbell said. Slowly, however, interest seems to be coming back, she said.

A recent COG survey showed that 28 percent of private-sector employees and 26 percent of government workers said they would telecommute if given the opportunity. Currently, only 9 percent of eligible federal workers telecommute, but the number is increasing, said Abby Block, deputy associate director of the Office of Personnel Management.

COG, an association of 19 area local governments, and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a regional chamber of commerce that represents large private employers, recently teamed to target employees of government agencies and large businesses by offering free training and free trials at telecommuting centers across the region. Two of the centers, which offer computer workstations and office equipment, are in Sterling and Herndon.