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Sierra Magazine
Hearth & Home: Home Work

The green routine of telecommuting

by Kim Erickson

After the birth of her daughter, public-relations manager Julie Sauter traded a two-hour commute to a cramped work space for an amble to an airy spare bedroom. Comfortably ensconced in her home office, she listens to her voice messages, checks her daily calendar to the strains of the Sesame Street theme song and, with Sarah nearby, boots up.

In 1990, 4 million people chose telecommuting over the hassle and expense of traveling to work. Seven years later, the ranks of stay-at-home employees had swelled to a robust 11 million. Freed from gridlock, office politics, and interruptions, telecommuters suffer less stress than their cubicled counterparts.

Happily, the shift toward home-based labor affords the environment some relief as well. A rosy 1994 study from the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that if workers in the nation's 339 largest cities (or two-thirds of the U.S. population) telecommuted, the need for 7,300 to 11,200 miles of highways could be eliminated by 2010. Too speculative a scenario? Then consider some present-day planetary benefits. Telecommuters spare the air about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, for each gallon of fuel they don't use. Telecommuters also reduce other noxious emissions such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide.

In an effort to reduce auto emissions by 25 percent, President Clinton signed a Clean Air Act amendment in 1995 that included a challenge to companies with over 100 employees to look for alternatives to the traditional commute. In response, AT&T initiated a formal telecommuting program. Today, 36,000 of its employees work either at home or at off-site communal cubicles. Other corporate heavyweights like Hughes Aircraft, Pacific Bell, and Sun Microsystems soon followed suit. According to a 1996 assessment by the U.S. General Services Administration, companies that allow telecommuting just two days a week eliminated 3,475 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, 123 pounds of carbon monoxide, and 12 pounds each of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide per worker a year.

Along the way, corporate America discovered that telecommuting is good for business. "Employers report that telecommuting cuts absenteeism and reduces the need for office space-saving the company both real-estate and operating costs," says Sauter, who now promotes telecommuting full-time. Companies also gain through increased worker productivity and a reduction in turnover. According to telecommuting pioneer Jack Nilles, author of Making Telecommuting Happen, "The bottom-line savings for employers can range from $6,000 to $12,000 annually per teleworker."

Not to say this arrangement is ideal in all cases. Some managers aren't comfortable supervising via "remote control." Also, because an employee's professional and personal worlds often are literally separated by a few feet, telecommuting can lead to workaholism. Conversely, a teleworker might find that without a structured office setting he gets little done. Yet despite these problems, Nilles projects there will be 20 million telecommuters in the United States by the year 2000.

Not surprisingly, keyboard slaves in software industry locals like San Francisco, San Jose, Boston, and Seattle are abandoning traditional offices in droves. Writers and researchers are other natural work-at-home candidates. And thanks to the latest communications technologies, so are some salespeople, clerks, and support staff.

To broach telecommuting with your boss, have ready a proposal outlining your schedule (most telecommuting setups are part-time) and how your performance will be measured. Also, hammer out who will pay to equip your home office. AT&T, for example, outfits its teleworkers with everything from phones to ergonomic desks and chairs, but most companies do not.

While avoiding bumper-to-bumper traffic is telecommuting's primary appeal, stay-at-home workers enjoy a passel of perks. "Most teleworkers don't wear shoes, and a good percentage work with a pet at their feet,"says Julie Sauter. "What a great way to make a living, huh?"

Kim Erickson writes frequently on health and environmental issues. Her article on wet cleaning appeared in our September/October issue.

Telecommute America! offers a wealth of information on telecommuting online at Telecommute_America.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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