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Teleworkers, divide! You have nothing to lose but your commutes!

By Mary Ellen Godin
Record-Journal staff

MERIDEN - When she had surgery last summer, JoAnn Richards didn't have to worry about missing too much time from her job at Aetna Inc.

After three weeks, the office was just a scoot down the stairs, she said. Maura David, who works in human resources for Aetna, just met her mailman for the first time in the 20 years she has lived on Hourigan Drive.

"He's my new best friend," David said.
Richards and David are among 4,600 Aetna employees nationwide who telecommutes some portion of their work week from home. The company's goal is to have 20 percent of its workforce telecommuting by 2009, said Wendy Morphew, a spokeswoman for Aetna Inc. For Richards, the office is a family-room desk by a window in her Metacomet Drive home, a dedicated phone line paid for by Aetna and an Internet connection that allows her to work on projects with her co-workers via cyberspace. Her shih tzu Sunny Daisy keeps her company, curled up under her chair.

"My team is scattered throughout the country," Richards said. "I can just as easily do the work from here. It's more convenient." David, on the other hand, travels to various Aetna offices along the East Coast, but her main office is at home.

About 158,000 state residents work from home at least one day a month - an 86 percent jump from just five years ago, according to a recent survey by Telecommute Connecticut!

Telecommute Connecticut! is a state Department of Transportation program that helps employers design, develop and implement telecommuting programs. A central goal is to cut down on the number of commuters by helping employers identify positions that could be done at home.

"We were really encouraged and happy about the overall number," said Jean T. Stimolo, program manager for Telecommute Connecticut! "When we looked at what it translates to, it's more than 60,000 cars a day, and the biggest percentages are in the most congested areas." Insurance companies like Aetna are finding it easier to set up workers at home and are likely to have large concentrations of telecommuters. Other telecommuter positions are in manufacturing, information technology support, call centers, health care and data entry. "What we found is that any job that has portable tasks can be broken down," Stimolo said. "We are such a service state, we have a great opportunity for telecommuting. Most work-at-home candidates have commutes that are 20 to 40 percent longer than other employees, and the savings to both the individual and the employer are greater." Aetna benefits through reduced real estate costs that used to support thousands of workers in huge offices countrywide. It has several layers of home-based programs, with workers such as Richards completely home based; and for others, such as David, who require dedicated workspaces in the areas they travel. Aetna calls them teleworkers.

Enter "teleworking"
"Teleworking at Aetna has evolved over the years from an employee perk to a significant part of Aetna's business strategy to increase staffing flexibility and productivity while reducing real estate expenses," Morphew said. "It has proven very popular with employees, who report increased job satisfaction and greater productivity."

Teleworking has allowed Aetna to outline a plan to close much of its 4,200-employee Middletown office by 2010, when its lease expires. The move will be done in phases, with some employees teleworking and other workers shifting to other offices statewide. A data center will remain at the site.

Richards said she sees the benefits every day, not just in gas savings but also car maintenance, commute time, wardrobe and dry cleaning costs and by preparing lunches at home. Her days are structured, with walking breaks with Sunny Daisy and picnic lunches outside. "It's important to get a routine going," Richards said. "Get ready, get dressed, have breakfast, you're going to work."

Richards has been telecommuting for about a year and a half, and was one of Aetna's first volunteers when the program began. The first few weeks, she said, she felt some isolation away from the chatty office. But as she established her routine, it became less noticeable. "That was a definite adjustment," Richards said. "But you're so busy working during the day."

David has been teleworking for six weeks, and both women are involved in Aetna's telework community, which offers support and contact time for teleworkers. David is in contact with other city teleworkers, who plan to unite for company-wide teleconferences in the city's wireless downtown hotspots.

"People are finding ways to stay engaged," David said. "Because I am able to travel, it's not so bad." Richards' children are grown and moved out of the house, while David still has teenagers at home. When her office door is closed, her son e-mails her from upstairs. "But he would have to do that if I were working at the office," she said. "My family is very respectful. As long as you have the dedicated workspace, and the family understands, you get more done."

"A definite advantage"
But there is an added layer of comfort, knowing she is nearby, and she is eating and exercising more.

Both women said their productivity has improved because their focus is better. Richards said what used to take 15 minutes - to get a cup of coffee, because of office small talk - now takes only two minutes. Although, she has no children at home, the employees in her group who do have children continue to bring their children to day care to eliminate distractions, Richards said.

Richards likens her job for Aetna's National Customer Organization as one of a 20-member team that works on a large puzzle. She and her team are responsible for ensuring that daily reports about online benefit and claim information get to customer service representatives and claims processors.

Should she need to visit the dentist or make some other appointment, the day is flexible, but communication with her other team members is vital to complete the final project, she said. She can also make up lost hours at night. The computers are even networked to allow her - with her colleagues' permission - to go onto their desktops and assist if they need training in some area. And they have instant messaging for quick updates and chats.

"There's plenty of human contact," Richards said. "There is less interruption, there is less stress. I'm not really sure why. It's a definite advantage."

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