LA faces fax after quake: Battered commuters discover advantages of working from home

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EDWARD BARR has never much enjoyed getting out of bed before dawn for the long slog down the crowded road to his office, but it has taken an earthquake to make him do something about it.

Until recently, the 56-year- old city planner was one of millions who regularly spend up to a quarter of their working day travelling to and from work in Los Angeles around a freeway system that long ago became a tangled, air-poisoning ribbon of nose-to-tail metal.

Before 6am each morning he would leave his home in the Santa Clarita valley and travel by bus or car to his dollars 60,000 job in downtown LA, a glittering crop of high-rise banks and offices 35 miles to the south-east.

Eleven hours later, he would pack up his papers and brace himself for another wasted hour or two struggling up the Golden State freeway, in the hope of getting home in time to salvage some of the evening. By 9.30pm he would be in bed, preparing for the following day's ordeal.

But last month he was abruptly forced to overhaul his travelling arrangements. So too was a large proportion of the 5.9 million commuters to LA. The worst earthquake in the city's history caused sections of several key freeways to collapse, including part of the Interstate 5 that Mr Barr used daily. Repairs are expected to take months. He switched to the Metrolink train, but even that carved three hours out of his day.

So Mr Barr took a decision. As of tomorrow he will be a telecommuter, a member of a growing body of full-time employees in America who no longer go to the office every day. He will spend at least one of his four working days per week at a new 'telecommuting' satellite centre not far from home, writing reports in a cubicle equipped with a computer, modem, telephone and fax.

Telecommuting, long billed as the working pattern of the future, is still in its infancy in the United States, but LA has already established an irrefutable claim to be its world headquarters. Before the earthquake damaged thousands of offices and businesses, the metropolis had an estimated 600,000 telecommuters.

In the first two weeks after the 'quake, 2,750 people called a hotline set up by the regional telephone company, Pacific Bell, to field questions on telecommuting. Southern California's telecommuting centres were inundated with enquiries and found themselves drawing up waiting-lists and even expansion plans.

'We went from 60 per cent to 100 per cent occupancy overnight,' said Suzette Cecchini, manager of the Antelope Valley Telebusiness Centre.

Despite its advantages, telecommuting is still fairly rare in the US. Although the idea was first mooted more than 20 years ago, research shows only 7.6 million Americans telecommute, a mere 6.1 per cent of the 129 million workforce. Almost all are white-collar workers who do so part-time, for an average of two days a week.

These statistics have set the experts wondering: why, in these days of video-conferencing, cheap PCs and super-swift modems, has telecommuting been so slow to get off the ground?

The answer lies within the executive suites of big business. Most regular employees who telecommute in the US work for small businesses (77 per cent). Medium-size companies account for 18 per cent. By contrast, large companies - the institutions which supposedly have the training resources and flexibility to experiment with working practices - chalk up only 5 per cent. This is despite the fact that surveys show an overwhelming majority of employees are keen to try it.

'The problem is the supervisors,' said Jack Nilles, a Los Angeles-based management consultant who is widely credited with coining the word 'telecommute' during the 1970s. At the heart of their resistance lies a concept which some experts call 'face time' - the hours in which a boss can actually see employees working. So long as workers clock up good face time, the managers know their power-base is intact.

Yet a survey several years ago by US West (one of a number of telephone companies beating the telecommuting drum) showed productivity among a pilot group who became telecommuters, in 14 states, shot up 20 per cent. Research by Mr Nilles's company, JALA International, has found improvements ranging from 7 to 20 per cent. He claims electronic commuting can produce net savings of dollars 8,000 ( pounds 5,400) to dollars 9,000 ( pounds 6,100) per employee per year, through higher output and lower costs.

He is in no doubt about the reason. 'The typical office is a terrible place to get any work done. Talk about distraction] That's all an office is. But a telecommuter will usually find it is possible to work close to eight hours, instead of two. By the time most commuters get to work they have already used up a substantial quantity of adrenalin. The telecommuter starts work feeling fresh and relaxed.'

Suzanne Cecchini's Antelope Valley centre, 60 miles north of downtown LA, is one of a dozen such bases which have cropped up on the periphery in the past few years, usually supported by both government grants and private investment.

The federal, state, and city authorities see them as a potentially useful weapon in the battle against excessive traffic and the worst smog problem in the United States.

The centres are therefore usually something of a bargain. The people who use the Antelope Valley complex as a satellite base have not had to pay any rent to date, thanks to outside subsidy. Next month their companies will start paying dollars 20 to dollars 23 a day per employee, a fee which includes local telephone calls and use of all computer equipment round the clock.

Even then, it will be cheap at the price: after all, it enables the employee to work near home, save petrol costs, cut hours off the working day, and escape the health-shredding, adrenalin-draining stress of traffic gridlock.

Unexpectedly, the experts consider the best approach to be a mixture of office-based work and telecommuting. 'You do need to have personal contact with your peers and superiors,' said Connie Worden, an entrepreneur who is opening a new telecommuting base at Valencia, outside LA. 'Sharing ideas is vital. That's why very few people telecommute every day of the week.'

(Photograph omitted)