Lose the commute
Many green workers choose to telecommute
Thu, Dec 11 2008 at 1:47 PM
By David Abel
Many of the same Boston-area workers who spent hours sitting in snow-snarled traffic during the season's first storm last month took a decidedly different tack yesterday: They sat in front of a laptop, telecommuting from the comforts of home.
If nothing else, yesterday's modest storm proved to be a one-day experiment in the effectiveness of the home office, especially among those not used to it. All across the region, many found a few surprising pitfalls entwined with the obvious perks.
Yes, they could work in their pajamas, but they also had their children, under no obligation to telestudy on a snow day from school, getting in their way. They had to summon self-discipline not ordinarily required in a cubicle or office. And in the case of Heywood James, he had no IT department at the ready when calamity struck.
Waking up yesterday to snowdrifts nearly a foot high at his home in Needham, James decided it wasn't worth the time and effort to get to his office in downtown Boston. He looked forward to fewer interruptions from colleagues and had an idyllic notion of more time with the children.
His plan to do financial modeling and field customer calls was working fine until about 10 a.m., when a snow-laden branch outside his house snapped, taking his cable, phone, and Internet connection down as well.
"There was nothing I could do but go to work,'' said James, 41, of Fidelity Investments, where only about 10 percent of the colleagues in his division were in the office.
It was an information technology dilemma of a similar sort that did in Eric Hoover, 43, a computer programmer at State Street Bank. He said he had hoped to work at his home in Franklin, even though he acknowledged that "you get distracted by the kids, the phone ringing, whatever.''
But then the power went out. "I signed on as long as my laptop battery lasted, which wasn't long,'' Hoover said.
The result: He took a personal day.
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Dan Nelson, 36, of Worcester, did not want to risk biking back and forth to the commuter rail en route to his office in Newton. Instead, his daughters climbed all over him, and his wife suggested that he was interrupting their daily regimen of mealtimes and baths. "It's nice not to need to look fresh or tidy,'' Dan Nelson said.
But added Mandy Nelson: "When he's home, it throws a wrench into our schedule.''
Despite the potential for problems, with personal computers in more than 80 percent of all households and broadband Internet access in more than half, telecommuting is increasingly a practical option for many workers.
In 2000, the US Census found 4.2 million Americans said they worked from home, and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study estimated in 2006 that 20 million people telecommute. Last year, the research firm Gartner Inc. estimated that 35 million Americans telecommuted at least eight hours a month; it found about 13 million people worked from remote locations for eight or more hours a week.
For thousands of accidental telecommuters yesterday, there were undoubtedly dogs who needed midday walks, refrigerators that needed to be regularly raided, and, though no one would admit it publicly, afternoon naps that needed to be taken.
After the wheels of her gray Mini Cooper spun out and she aborted her trip home to South Boston during the snowstorm in December, Amy Gallagher stayed home yesterday, instead of driving 30 miles to her office in Wenham.
Nearly 200 other Mullen employees, about half of the advertising agency, also telecommuted yesterday. Like many companies in the area, the agency's chief financial officer sent an e-mail and voicemail to employees, telling them the company was open but left it to them to decide whether it was safe to travel.
Having spent three hours traveling 8 miles during the December storm, Gallagher, 29, an account supervisor, didn't want to repeat the stress. "I was in an absolute panic attack, and I realized it's just not worth that level of aggravation,'' she said. "If I had worked from home, I would have been working all day instead of sitting in a car for three hours.''
David Belson, a senior product marketing manager with Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, never even considered making the drive from his North Andover home yesterday. "From my perspective, [Interstate] 93 is bad on a nice, warm, sunny day,'' Belson said. "On a day like today, no go.''
Belson added that working from home has its challenges. "I think it's sort of a different set of distractions,'' he said. There are "the noises of my son, doing whatever it is he's doing.''
Coy Stine, a thermal management engineer with Degree Controls Inc. in Milford, N.H., e-mailed his boss at 8 a.m., when more than 6 inches of snow had already fallen.
Stine decided to work from home, rather than spend three hours shoveling his uphill driveway and venturing through the hilly, 5-mile road to the office.
"I can't get out easily or quickly; it's easier for me to boot up my computer,'' said Stine, 36.
Of course, many companies still hold old-fashioned, New England expectations for their workers. Unless it's a natural disaster, they expect their employees there.
"Our office closes only in the case of a state emergency,'' said Steve Steinberg, spokesman for Jones Lang LaSalle in Boston, a real estate and money management firm where only a few employees worked at home yesterday. "The snow is barely a blip on the screen here. We are cranking on all cylinders.''
Jenn Abelson, Ross Kerber, Jeffrey Krasner, Thomas J. Palmer Jr., Todd Wallack, and Nicole C. Wong of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright 2008 The Boston Globe