WASHINGTON (AFP) — On a typical day, Joanne Senn dresses her daughters for school, feeds her cats and fish, and buckles down to start her job at 7:15 am as an IBM software marketing manager. In her kitchen.
The 46-year-old resident of Austin, Texas, says she spends about 95 percent of her work time at home, where she can consult emails, speak on conference calls with colleagues in Europe and the United States, and share ideas via instant messaging software.
"It's remarkably refreshing not to have to deal with commuting," says Senn, who avoids a daily 25-kilometer (15-mile) drive to the IBM office in Austin. "You can be more focused."
Across the United States, workers and companies are looking at telecommuting as a means to curb transportation costs in the face of record-high gasoline prices.
Some 48 percent of employers offer an option of telework at least one day a week, according to a 2007 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, an association of company managers. Other efforts to help cope with soaring costs include four-day workweeks, help in organizing carpools and transportation subsidies, according to the group.
IBM has embraced the notion of telework and similar options since 1992, with positive results. The company says some 40 percent of its global workforce of 386,000 have an option to work from a remote location.
With technology such as virtual private networks, which allows an employee to connect securely to a company's computer network, workers can be equally productive away from the office, says Andrea Jackson, manager of worklife, flexibility and mobility programs for IBM.
"At IBM, we focus on results," she said. "With that in mind it really doesn't matter where you work. We found (a flexible work option) allows employees to be more productive."
Matthew Kazmierczak, vice president for research at the AeA (formerly known as the American Electronics Association), said high energy costs are fueling more interest in telework.
"This is win-win for the employer and the employee, and new technologies allow this to happen in a greater way than in the past," he said.
A 2006 survey by the University of Maryland and Rockbridge Associates found about two percent of US adults telecommute full time, with another nine percent telecommuting part-time.
But it also indicated that the potential for telecommuting could apply to 25 percent of the workforce and that if everyone who could took full advantage of telecommuting, the savings would be at least 3.9 billion dollars.
Charles Colby, president of Rockbridge, said the savings would be even greater now with higher gasoline costs, but that it remains unclear how many people will use telecommuting.
"We may find that people still go to their workplace, but instead opt for solutions such as carpooling or high-mileage vehicles," he said.
Jack Heacock, senior vice president at the Telework Coalition, a group promoting telecommuting, said the practice is moving beyond traditional areas such as call centers to other industries, even in manufacturing, where technology and service workers may be able to perform tasks from home.
"In the last six months we have been getting an increased number of calls from heavy industries looking at what they can do for their employees," Heacock said.
Heacock said that even though technology exists to allow many workers to telecommute, employers are often reluctant.
"Most employers staunchly believe it is imperative to get to the workplace," he said.
Additionally, he says employers fear complaints or lawsuits from employees if the benefit is not applied equally.
"The employer doesn't want to have to choose between one employee and another," he said. "Policies have to be well thought through and equitable."
Despite the advantages, some point out the downside to telecommuting -- a lack of contact with other employees and workplace friction.
"Telecommuting may be the best solution, but it is going to be a tough sell when business conditions are as weak as they are now," said John Challenger of the consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.
"In a slowdown, managers want all their workers on the front line. As a worker, it is also a bad time to be away from the office. Even if your productivity is equal to or better than that of those in the office, the lack of face-time with your supervisors puts you at a distinct disadvantage," said Challenger.
Timothy Golden, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said the plans offer "very positive things for the teleworkers themselves," but also can lead to resentment from others who may get stuck with additional tasks. Thus, he says telework must be carefully managed.
"A lot of work today is knowledge generation, it's collaborative, so it's essential for employees to work in teams to be effective together," he said.
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