Telecommuters look smart as gas prices go up

Gloria Jahnke wants to have it both ways. And who doesn't? Most days, she wants to rub elbows with her stimulating colleagues at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

"I like that interaction," said Jahnke, 60, a health scientist in toxicology. "You run into people during the day. You learn things you wouldn't pick up otherwise."

But sometimes -- no disrespect to those brainy NIEHS types -- Jahnke just wants to shut out all distractions. She needs to sit at her computer and stay focused on her deadline.

On those days, she can get more work done at her house in Orange County. After all, she has a phone at home, a laptop and an Internet connection.

So why waste time and gas on a 45-minute drive to Research Triangle Park? This summer, Jahnke joined the ranks of a modest movement to let workers stay home a few days a month -- and phone it in.

Telecommuting isn't new, but it seems to be growing. As $4 gas makes driving more expensive, some bosses are getting up the courage to let workers out of their sight every now and then.

Cisco Systems, with 4,500 full-timers in RTP, ranked sixth this year in Fortune magazine's survey of the 100 best places to work -- partly on the strength of its No.1 rank in telecommuting. About 70 percent of Cisco employees work from home at least one day a week.

When 12,210 Triangle-area commuters pledged in the SmartCommute Challenge this summer to try a different way of traveling to work, 5,806 of them said they would telecommute.

A national nonprofit group that promotes commuter benefits cited NIEHS recently for a 33 percent increase this year in what the federal agency calls teleworking.

Jahnke is among 113 of the 950 employees at NIEHS who occasionally work from home. She started work there in May and got approval this summer to try telecommuting one day every other week. So far, she likes it.

"I like having that option when you have to focus," said Jahnke (pronounced Yon-kee). "You don't want an interruption. Nobody can actually pop in to see you unless they drive out there to your house. That can help, if you really have to get things done."

Márcia Clover of Apex says her 2-year-old at home is less a distraction than co-workers at her office. She works for Clean Design, an RTP advertising agency.

When she was preparing for her daughter's birth two years ago, she agreed to take a reduced pay raise if her bosses would let her work at home two days a week.

Good gas savings

"Then when gas prices started going up, I was like, man, that was a good choice," said Clover, 34. "The two days I save on gas and day-care costs make a difference at the end of the month."

Clover's work on advertising projects includes interactive programming, video editing and writing. She can do all that, and even log her daily work hours, on her home computer.

Each Wednesday and Friday, she skips the 30-minute drive to RTP and starts work early.

"I feel like I'm more productive the days I work from home -- even with a 2-year-old -- than when I'm at the office," Clover said. "She's really good. I take a five-minute break every now and then to read a book to her."

Because she keeps her files at home, bad weather doesn't keep her from doing her job.

"My productivity, rain or shine, it's still the same," Clover said.

NIEHS began moving a few years ago to protect itself against natural and manmade disasters that might interrupt work at its RTP campus. Suddenly, working at home was government policy.

"So when management bought into it, that really changed things," said Dick Sloane, who promotes commuter alternatives as part of his job at NIEHS. "We have a number of managers who telework, and they're strongly enthusiastic."

Some government agencies are still catching up.

The state Department of Transportation is leading a quiet effort to help state workers cut back on their driving. DOT and other agency workers are eligible for vanpool subsidies, free bus rides and flexible work hours.

But in 2003, DOT managers canceled a program in which more than 100 employees were allowed to work from home a few days a month. Five years later, DOT still does not allow telecommuting.

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