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Telecommuting Picking Up As Gasoline Prices Soar

For Barbara Taylor, telecommuting saves her a three-hour round-trip commute to New York City and allows the certified public accountants she supervises to be more effective.

Home office
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Home office

Working at home lets Floridian Sean Brodrick avoid unproductive meetings and do his part in what he considers the vital responsibility of Americans to conserve fuel.

And Lori Fraser, a Colorado human relations executive, watches as her company begins to let some employees work remotely, which she hopes will spread from department to department and save money they would spend gassing up their cars.

Companies and their employees are searching for new ways to deal with soaring gasoline prices that have risen to heights unimaginable only a few months ago. Telecommuting, in which employees take advantage of growing technological opportunities to work from home, is regaining popularity now that gas costs more than $4 a gallon.

"This summer in conjunction with the rising gas prices and concerns from employees, we've rolled out a new program. We're calling it 'flexible work,' " says Fraser, vice president of human relations at Superior, Colo.-based Key Equipment Finance, a 1,500-employee company that arranges leases for heavy equipmen. "I think it's working out well."

At firms that already had telecommuting, the practice has taken on new importance with gas prices.

"We offer telecommuting as part of a much broader flexibility strategy. It is widely used across the firm by individuals at all levels, including many senior executives," says Taylor, general counsel at BDO Seidman, an accounting and consulting firm based in Chicago, though Taylor works out of the Manhattan office.

"Given the nature of our business and the nature of technology, we have found we've been extremely successful," she adds.

Telecommuting has established itself as a major business trend as large Wall Street companies, government offices and several colleges across the country are encouraging employees to stay at home when possible to do their work. Technological tools like e-mail, instant messenger services and videoconferencing hardware help make the process easier.

The benefits to workers are obvious--less stress during travel and substantial savings from gas costs, plus more time to spend at home.

But employers haven't always been convinced.

Indeed, prior to the run-up in gas prices telecommuting had begun to fall out of favor among employers who questioned its effectiveness and efficiency.

"It's certainly a quality-of-life issue for me, and I would imagine a lot of other people telecommuting are doing it for reasons unique to their life as well as the purpose of the business," Taylor says.

Megan Lueders began telecommuting during her maternity leave and now considers it an essential part of her work practices, saving her about $50 a week in gas as well as helping her quality of life as a new mother.

Leuders, who markets photography supplies through resellers across the globe, uses videoconference technology developed by her firm, LifeSize Communication, to interact more closely with clients in 80 countries.

"By being able to stay at home and do all my functions, it's also been a cost savings and an extremely effective way to do my job," says Lueders, who is based out of Austin, Texas. Her employers "really see no difference whether I'm at the office or in the house."

Environmental reasons couple with efficiency to convince Brodrick that telecommuting is the best way to do his job as a natural resources analyst at MoneyandMarkets.com.

Brodrick says recent studies show the US could save 1.35 billion gallons of gas a year if workers able to telecommute did so an average of 1.6 times per week.

"This is obviously something we should be doing. We are in an energy crisis right now and the government is not treating it as a crisis. Instead, they treat it as a chance to grandstand," says Brodrick, who recommends conservation and tax credits for fuel-saving cars to help combat oil issues. "We need to make consumption not so good."

Some in government, though, actually have joined the telecommuting movement.

The House recently passed a measure directing federal agency heads to find ways to increase telecommuting, with a goal of 20 percent, or one day each work week. The Office of Personnel Management says about 6 percent of the government's 1.8 million workers telecommute regularly.

Yet not everyone is on the bandwagon, despite the savings.

Playing Hooky?

Some managers worry that workers will take the chance to work at home as an opportunity to goof off, won't be as focused, or will be out of the communication loop.

As such, Fraser says her company is implementing telecommuting one step--and one department--at a time. Gas prices have changed the telecommuting dynamic.

"There are people who tend to be sort of resistant to change," says Fraser. "A lot of managers have come up with 10 reasons why it won't work. We try to focus on managers that do see the possibilities."

Key has been testing a few approaches, including simply allowing four-day work weeks with longer shifts, or through a blend of telecommuting strategies. The company hopes that as telecommuting succeeds in various departments, the mentality will spread through the company and remove hesitation by some supervisors.

"Reaction has definitely been mixed," she says. "It's a very new way of thinking. There's an attitude of, 'if I can't seem them working, they might not be working.' "

But for Brodrick, the results both to himself and his employers at Weiss Research are evident.

"They know I'm working all the time. I have extremely high production," he says. "I think this is what we have to do. We have to telecommute."

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