Telecommuting isn't as popular as '70s futurists predicted, but its use is on the rise, and many predict that it will become more widespread as employers overcome concerns about how to keep information secure and monitor remote workers' productivity.
EUGENE — For a little over a year, Jackie Harmon, 32, of Eugene, has handled phone calls as a customer service agent for Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
For the past three months, she has been doing that in the comfort of her own home. And she has noticed that the occasional tough call doesn't sting as much as it might have in the office.
"I know I take it a lot better (when I'm at home)," she said. "I'm in my bunny slippers. It's really hard for me to take it too seriously."
Harmon is one of Enterprise's 20 "home agents." The company, which is based in St. Louis and operates a 300-person call center in downtown Eugene, plans to increase its Eugene home-based work force to about 75 agents in the next six months, spokeswoman Christy Conrad said.
The concept of telecommuting — employees working from home or another remote location instead of the office — has been around for decades. It was touted as an answer to the energy crisis in the 1970s, heralded in the 1980s as a way to balance work and family, and now is being lauded as a way to boost productivity and trim facilities costs.
Telecommuting isn't as popular as '70s futurists predicted. But its use is on the rise, and many predict that it will become more widespread as employers overcome concerns about how to keep information secure and monitor remote workers' productivity.
Area call centers, for example, have home agents log onto a secure server, and they use the same methods to measure productivity as they use at the center.
Last year 17.2 million employees in the United States telecommuted at least one day a month, according to a survey conducted for WorldatWork, a global human resources association based in Washington, D.C. That was up 39 percent from 2006.
About 11 percent of the U.S. work force telecommuted at least once a month last year, up from 8 percent in 2006, the survey found.
Oregon and Lane County don't track the number of telecommuters, but local experts figure that participation here probably mirrors national figures. Based on the 11 percent rate, an estimated 16,000 workers in Lane County telecommute at least once a month.
"Generally there is a pattern here that if you have a special project that's appropriate for you to work on at home and you need the time to focus, that ability is granted by employers," said Connie Bloom Williams, who manages Commuter Solutions, a regional program that encourages transportation options, such as telecommuting. "There are very few places that actually have formal policies."
Area call centers, such as Enterprise, Pentagon Federal Credit Union, Royal Caribbean, and Symantec, are exceptions. They do have telecommuting policies, and, in some cases, they're creating a parallel home-based work force.
"Call centers are buying into this more than any other group that we've seen," said Chuck Wilsker, CEO of the nonprofit Telework Coalition, based in Washington, D.C.
Tech companies, which have ready access to the technology needed to telecommute, are another early adapter, he said.
About a third of the 30-person work force at Concentric Sky, a Web development firm in Eugene, telecommute. Owner Wayne Skipper frequently does it himself.
"It gives me the freedom to schedule my day around other things I might have going," he said. "I work 12 to 16 hours a day, so I might take part of the day working from home, or from a coffee shop. It helps break up the day and keep me motivated."
The practice has reduced facilities costs for Concentric Sky, which leases 2,000 square feet downtown.
"If I needed to provide a separate office space for everybody, I would have to have a larger office," Skipper said.
But by far, the biggest advantage, he said, is "it's an inexpensive perk that I can provide to people. People like to be trusted, so I think it creates employee engagement in a way that's different than just having them here in the office."
Employers such as Enterprise and Concentric Sky are finding that telecommuting can boost productivity and retention of workers, reduce facilities costs, keep work flowing in bad weather or other emergencies, and lower fuel consumption, thereby reducing greenhouse gases and improving air quality.
Conrad, the Enterprise spokeswoman, said employee retention is 5 percent higher among home agents. The home-based work force reduces the need to lease more office space, and if a snowstorm or power outage shut down Enterprise's downtown center, home agents could continue serving customers, she said.
The arrangement works well for top-performing employees who are very disciplined, Conrad said. But "it's not for everybody," she said. "Some people don't like it because they like the social aspects of coming into work or a job, or getting away from their home, so it just depends on the person."
With its potential for cost savings, telecommuting would seem to gain popularity in this recession.
Occasional telecommuting is up, but regular telecommuting (almost daily), has fallen slightly during the past two years, the WorldatWork survey found.
Some telecommuters worry that in a down economy their jobs may be the first to go, so they're driving to the office "to have some face time with management," spokeswoman Marcia Rhodes said.
Employers and workers who have tried telecommuting say there are other reasons why home-based workers should maintain strong ties with the office.
Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which operates a 320-employee service center in Eugene, has about 15 agents who split up their work week, spending a couple of days at home and a couple of days in the office.
"We experimented with this and found that if (home agents) never came into the office, they sort of lost touch with the business and the camaraderie of the office," Vice President Kevyn Myers said.
Dianna Davis of Eugene has worked for the credit union for the past five years. She has been a home agent since January and likes "just being able to be at home, get up, leave my pajamas on, get a cup of coffee and log onto the computer."
But she said she also likes going into the office a couple of days a week "to kind of stay in the loop."
The credit union launched its home agent program several years ago largely for "disaster recovery purposes," Myers said. "We just wanted to be prepared if something happened."
Not all call centers are sold on the idea of home-based agents. Harry & David, which sells fruit baskets and other gift items, is based in Medford and operates a call center in Eugene during the busy winter holidays.
The company experimented with a home agent program several years ago, but decided not to continue it.
Harry & David customers say that they like to talk with customer service representatives who have tasted the products, spokesman Bill Ihle said. When agents are in a central location, they can get routine updates from buyers and sample new products. That's much more difficult to do when agents are working out of their homes, he said.
On the Net:
Commuter Solutions: http:www.ltd.org/cs/csindex.html
Concentric Sky: http:www.concentricsky.com/
Telework Coalition: http:www.telcoa.org/