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Trading Motors For Modems

New state survey finds employers favor idea of telecommuting

By Patricia Daddona

As gas prices rise, the allure of working from home instead of commuting to the office is growing.

So say Telecommute Connecticut, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, and a variety of companies in southeastern Connecticut.

Telecommuting, as it is known in the business world, allows employees to spend more time on the job instead of driving back and forth to the office by providing tools like laptops in the field or at home. It also helps the employer retain workers who may not like their commutes, experts in the field say.

CBIA and Telecommute Connecticut have teamed up to conduct a survey of about 1,800 business leaders and human resources professionals on the topic, said Jason Giulietti, a CBIA researcher.

They found that 60 percent of the 350 employers who responded favor pursuing telecommuting to help keep or recruit workers and to cut fuel costs, he said.

In addition, 37 percent of those companies would be likely to develop telecommuting programs if $4-a-gallon gasoline hit $5, the survey found.

"There is enough of a scare that it's heightened awareness of telecommuting and that's probably a good thing," CBIA economist Peter Gioia said of the gas prices. "Everybody's looking to recruit and retain and it's something else they can offer. It sets them apart."

About two employees at Connecticut Community Care Inc. in each of three different regions served - at offices in Norwich, Watertown and Wethersfield - have asked to telecommute recently, said Deborah Bradley, director of human resources.

And gas prices have been part of the reason, she said.

The nonprofit eldercare company promotes independent living, deploying about half their staff of 219 in the field. Armed with laptops and cell phones, these nurses and social workers can complete assessments while with clients and type in notes at home, Bradley said.

About 35 percent of the workers in the Norwich area are telecommuting, 5 percent higher than the companywide goal, she added.

"They get the work done without having to drive to the office, that's the benefit," said Jean Taylor Stimolo, program manager for Telecommute Connecticut. "And if they can also get more work done in the time they're not spending at the office and be more productive, it's a win-win for everyone."

On top of that, Bradley said the more telecommuting develops, the less office space the company will have to acquire as it continues to grow.

Founded 10 years ago, Telecommute Connecticut is a private nonprofit agency funded with federal and state money and operating through the state Department of Transportation.

Consultants that Telecommute Connecticut hires help companies research approaches to telecommuting and make recommendations, though they will not recommend specific products, Stimolo said.

They also specialize in encryption technology, which ensures security when accessing data from servers remotely through laptops, she said.

Stimolo says growth in telecommuting, while hard to quantify, is growing.

In 2007, for instance, about 158,000 employees were telecommuting. Of those, 36,386, or about 23 percent, began the practice only recently - a sign, she said, of its growing popularity.

At Miranda Creative Inc., a Norwich-based graphic design and advertising firm that employs 12 people, everyone telecommutes in some fashion, said owner Maria Miranda. One of those employees is Ruth Radin.

Radin works an eight- or nine-hour day, then works another one to two hours some nights - but because of telecommuting, she doesn't have to go back to the office.

She's already calculated gas costs of about $8 to commute 20 minutes back and forth to work, based on comparable mileage for gas priced at $4 a gallon, but notes that those savings aren't as important to her as the increased productivity.

"It's almost luxurious to work at home," she said. "This winter I did a 16-page annual report, the major bulk of the layout, in one day, whereas it would take me more time at work without interruptions to get to that."

In New London, the Lawrence & Memorial Hospital has pilot programs in telecommuting that are aimed at garnering for the hospital a "competitive advantage" in attracting employees, said Peter Fraser, vice president of human resources.

L&M is looking to expand a program in which transcriptionists and others telecommute, he said.

"It's terrific because we would give an employee the flexibility they wouldn't have if they had to come in on a 9-to-5 basis, over an employer who couldn't offer that," he said.

Miranda Creative is further along than most in using telecommuting and envisions being able to use video-conferencing by the end of the year.

"It's not possible for there to be a work week anymore," said Miranda. "The lines are completely blurred. We all wanted to be well connected and we all got exactly what we wanted."

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