NEWS & PRESS
Working at Home Today?
By KATIE HAFNER
November 2, 2000
Two days a week, Christine Parupia, an executive at Charles Schwab & Company, drives for five minutes from her house in Walnut Creek, Calif., to a towering office building and starts her workday. Her spacious corner office overlooks one of the San Francisco Bay area's most congested freeways, which Ms. Parupia can gaze out on with all the smugness of someone beating the system.
Each Wednesday and Friday, instead of making the hourlong commute to Schwab's headquarters in downtown San Francisco, Ms. Parupia works from what Schwab calls a "hoteling" center, also known as a telework or drop-in center. The suite of 42 offices is available to Schwab employees trying to reduce the strain of a long commute.
For years, telecommuting has been a topic surrounded by hope, hype and disappointment. The word itself has grown musty, smacking of yesterday's trend. The work-at-home utopia for all has not materialized, but the nightmare of two-hour commutes has led to the necessity of people working away from the office, either at home, at satellite offices like the Schwab center or at an ever-changing series of shared desks.
More than 16.5 million people in the United States, or about 12 percent of the work force, now work at home one or more days a month, according to the International Telework Association and Council, an industry group in Washington.
A few large companies in San Francisco and around the country are now pushing the concept of drop-in centers, which provide employees with a desk, a computer workstation, a telephone, administrative support and plenty of parking. Employees make reservations, check in and check out. Regulars like Ms. Parupia try to reserve the same office each time.
The push is being felt hardest in California, but remote work is growing more popular around the rest of the country. For several years, 17 telework centers in the Washington, D.C., area have been used primarily by federal employees but are gradually attracting interest from the private sector. The centers are run by a variety of organizations, including community colleges, economic development commissions and two private companies, Lockheed Martin and IBA, a technical consulting company in Falls Church, Va.
For the first several years, said Darryl Dobberfuhl, the executive director of the Washington telework sites, the centers were not filling up, but that is changing. "We have some people who spend one and a half or two hours commuting one way, " he said. "By the time they get to work they're pretty high strung. People really look forward to the days they can work from the center."
Mr. Dobberfuhl also pointed to federal legislation that was signed last month offering the telecommuting option to all eligible federal employees. "The timing is better now, " Mr. Dobberfuhl said. "More managers are understanding the concept."
The Schwab drop-in center in Walnut Creek, which the company calls Hotel Schwab, has many of the same amenities as a hotel, including a fitness center and a "concierge, " who carries out basic administrative tasks and makes the occasional deli run. It is also every bit as sterile, with few personal touches. If people want to store files, they use hallway lockers. Ms. Parupia said she usually brought in a framed photograph of her 13-year-old son to put on the desk.
Two years ago, Sun Microsystems opened three drop-in centers scattered around the Bay Area as an experiment. The decision as to where to put them was based purely on demographics.
"Instead of chasing space, we're chasing people, " said Ann Bamesberger, Sun's director of workplace effectiveness. "Instead of thinking, `Where can we get a big chunk of land?' we're thinking, `Where do people want to work?' "
Sun's drop-in centers have grown so popular that the company is planning to open others around the region. Some employees stay at the centers all day, while others go early in the morning and wait for the traffic to thin out before continuing on to the office. Schwab is opening two additional centers to the north and south of San Francisco.
Traffic is not the only reason companies are looking for alternatives. The paucity and expense of office space have forced some companies to require that employees share a work space. Sun now has some 10 percent of its 40, 000 employees, including Ms. Bamesberger, permanently "unassigned."
"It means you're virtual everywhere, " said Ms. Bamesberger, who works in a group of 30 people who share 15 seats at Sun's offices in Mountain View, Calif. She can also travel from Sun office to Sun office and use any of a number of drop-in "stations."
Brent Daniel, who works for Ms. Bamesberger, said that once a week, instead of making the 1æ1/4-hour drive to Mountain View, he worked from Sun's drop-in center in San Francisco, a 15-minute ride on public transportation from his house.
"Whatever seat I would have used in Mountain View can be used by someone else, " Mr. Daniel said. "Compare that to the scenario where I have an assigned seat in Mountain View. If I'm in San Francisco that day, that seat would be empty." Mr. Daniel welcomes not only a day without driving but also the change of pace and the chance to spend a day in the city.
The concept of a telework center isn't new. Between 1991 and 1997, in various experiments to gauge the change in air quality if commuting time was reduced, 40 or so publicly subsidized telework centers opened throughout California. When the subsidies expired, however, nearly all the centers closed because they were not being used very much.
But five years later, with traffic congestion worse than ever and real estate prices soaring, employers are increasingly open to exploring alternatives to the workplace norm.
Of 2, 700 Sun employees who responded to a recent survey, nearly 80 percent said they worked from home at least part of the time. Telecommuting is popular at Cisco Systems, too. Half the company's 35, 000 employees work from home at least one day a week. The company will provide a high-speed line to the Internet in employees' homes if requested.
Bill Finkelstein, a senior partner at Cisco, often spends Fridays working from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., 100 miles north of Cisco's San Jose headquarters.
"It increases productivity enormously, " Mr. Finkelstein said. By eliminating time in the car, he can start his workday at 6 a.m. with a conference call with the East Coast or Europe. During the calls, he can put on his headset and wander over to his large picture window to watch a covey of quail that lives in his yard.
Mr. Finkelstein's high-speed data line, supplied by Cisco, makes computer work as fast as it would be if he were in San Jose. "The problem I have is disciplining myself to get out of the office, " he said. "I'm in there for 10 hours plus." When he does take breaks, he goes into his kitchen to make a cup of tea or he walks out to the mailbox.
One alternative to expensive corporate real estate is none at all. Alan Gunshor, chief executive of Passpoints.com, a company that runs an online loyalty program, works from his apartment in San Francisco. He stays in touch with his 13 employees, who are scattered from Lake Tahoe to Los Angeles, via instant messaging, e-mail and frequent conference calls. "We decided very early on that we wanted to spend our money on people rather than office space, " Mr. Gunshor said.
Harriet Donnelly, president of Technovative Marketing, a public relations firm, directs 23 employees, all of whom, like Ms. Donnelly, work from home Ms. Donnelly said her employees all preferred the flexibility of working from home. One employee, she said, had set up her schedule so that she could ride her horse in the morning before starting work. "If someone wants to stop at 2 p.m. to take their child to a soccer game, as long as they take a cell phone or call in every hour and a half for their messages, that's fine, "
Harriet Donnelly gets a workplace visit from
her son, Sean, and one of the family dogs.
In her own home office in Berkeley Heights, N.J., Ms. Donnelly said, she had created just the right atmosphere for herself. She keeps the television on behind her, with the volume turned very low, not so that she can watch "Oprah" but so that "it feels like people are in the room with me." She keeps her office door closed so that telephone conversations aren't disrupted when her three dogs start up a chorus of barking.
Corporate clients, Ms. Donnelly said, are more accepting of her creative workplace arrangement than they were four years ago, when she began it. "People used to ask about it, but now they don't really care, " she said.
Trust is a topic that frequently arises around the topic of remote work. Employers lose a sense of control over employees who work remotely. But telecommuting proponents discount the concern.
"Employers are very hung up on the fact that if they see people at their desks, they can assume they're working and not doing their personal Internet browsing, which is a false assumption, " said Joanne Pratt, a consultant in Dallas who does research on telework.
"One of the basic tenets of the Cisco culture is trust, " Mr. Finkelstein said. "If you can't tell what an employee is doing without seeing them physically planted in a chair, how are you running your business?"
Ms. Donnelly said she did a minimum of employee monitoring, and she agreed with Mr. Finkelstein's assessment. "If companies have to police their employees, then they've hired the wrong people, " she said.
Still, working from home is not for everybody. Ms. Parupia said she had a home office, but she preferred to use the Schwab drop-in center, partly because she was less easily distracted and partly because the telework center provided her with a fax machine, a photocopier, a high-speed computer line and other office requirements.
At lunchtime, Ms. Parupia usually goes home, where she does some gardening, then returns to Hotel Schwab, rejuvenated and happy to resume her spot overlooking the freeway she doesn't have to be on.
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company