- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2000

A strong winter storm blowing through Washington often means a day off for the approximately 600,000 federal, state and local government employees in the region. No phones, no faxes, no Beltway commute.

But the information technology those workers depend on from the National Weather Service's computer systems to the 911 emergency network will keep humming along, no matter how much snow hits the ground.

That is because for Litton PRC, the McLean-based federal contractor that deploys and manages much of the government's information technology systems, there is no such thing as a snow day. More than 40 percent of its 5,300-strong work force telecommutes, and nearly 90 percent of its workers have the tools to work from home.

While last week's snowstorm left many employers without employees for up to two days, the event had less of an impact on PRC. Some employees did trickle in, though many others joined the full- and part-time telecommuters by taking home laptops and logging into the PRC intranet. Calls were made, appointments kept and meetings went forward, with the help of computers and speaker phones.

"Telecommuting enables us to keep working and keep producing, and it doesn't matter if we get 1 to 3 inches or 1 to 3 feet," said company spokesman Tim Long.

"If you don't have telecommuting built in you are shut down when it snows like this. You have lost that day because employees get off and play hooky with the kids when they get off from school," he added.

Many companies allow some form of telecommuting, which means taking advantage of technology to get work done outside the office. Some work from home, logging on to company intranets through Internet service providers. Others work wherever they are using laptops and cellular phones.

But most companies are still holding back on telecommuting, fearing that too many people out of the office will cut into productivity. Some 19.6 million Americans, about 8 percent of the work force, are telecommuters, according to Telecommute America, a Washington-based organization that promotes telecommuting.

While 40 percent of PRC's 5,300 employees telecommute either part time or full time, company officials say the sky is the limit. PRC believes telecommuting could be the key to productivity in the future.

"Eventually, what we are creating is a virtual work environment where people can work when they want to work, and can be most productive," Mr. Long said.

Telecommuting confusion

Many companies are interested in telecommuting but do not know where to begin. There is so much to consider: productivity, cost vs. benefit, compliance and fairness to all employees, and potential liability.

Employer concerns about liability issues surrounding telecommuting came to the fore in January when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a document on its Web site regarding work site inspections.

The document, a response letter to a Texas employer inquiring about safety issues, indicated that OSHA does have jurisdiction and the agency could conduct inspections of employee home offices.

The letter ignited a firestorm of complaints from employers and conservative lawmakers who believed OSHA was out of control.

Just days after the letter surfaced on the Web site, Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman called a special news conference to announce the letter would be removed.

In a statement prepared for Congress last week, Mrs. Herman assured that employers would not be held liable for safety and health violations in home offices.

While many employers breathed a sigh of relief, PRC executives merely smiled over the flap, knowing they were way ahead of the pack.

Worker safety, and potential company liability, were among the first issues addressed when company executives began crafting a telecommuting policy more than two years ago.

Building the policy

The end of snow days, while a blessing to clients and and a boon to production, was not the primary objective when in 1995 a group of PRC's top brass formed a committee to consider the pluses and minuses of telecommuting.

The executives, from all corners of the company, looked around the office and realized that much of the staff was out of the building. The work was getting done; Litton PRC was fast becoming a powerhouse among IT government contractors. But technology was changing the way people worked, and employees' notions and expectations about work and life also were changing.

Perhaps, the executives thought, telecommuting could be a way to entice talented employees while also impressing government clients by saving bundles on office space.

"It started informally in the early 1990s, a time when our company was growing and growing," said PRC Vice President Sharon Bohlman, who served on the committee.

"We thought that we should find out what was going on in practice and adopt some of the things we needed to do as a business," she added. It took PRC about a year and a half to sort through all of the issues and craft a thorough seven-page company policy on telecommuting.

The policy deals with all aspects of telecommuting from location and arrangement of the home office, equipment, logging hours, separating work and home life as well as compliance issues. The policy mandates that home workers create an office that fully complies with the same standards that the company adheres to at the office. While OSHA won't stop by, PRC reserves that right to inspect the home office for safety.

The policy also includes a written agreement that prospective telecommuters must sign.

"The document that we have people sign reminds them that they have to be careful in blurring the lines between work and home life," said Mrs. Bohlman, adding that sitting with a laptop in front of the television is a definite no-no.

"You have to treat this as respectfully as you do at work. So if you take time to go to lunch, that is not a work hour. You do have a little bit more flexibility in what you do at home. But if you stop doing work for two hours then that should be noted when you fill out your time," she said.

Several factors helped push Litton PRC to embrace telecommuting, said Mrs. Bohlman. As the company grew, cost of space became more of a concern. Meanwhile, as the Fairfax County technology center grew in the 1990s and companies competed for increasingly scarce talent, commute times shifted from an employee problem to a company concern.

Further, the Clean Air Act urged large U.S. companies to take steps to reduce the number of cars with one passenger on the road. As laptop technology improved through the decade, the amount and type of work people could do from their dens increased.

Unlike most company heads, Litton Vice President and President of PRC Len Pomata was outspoken in his support for telecommuting as the wave of the future. His strong advocacy at the outset set the tone for the committee, and helped break down psychological barriers that some managers might have to loosening the leash on staffers.

Employees catch on

David Kirkpatrick, an engineer for PRC, admits he was a little nervous when in 1997 he decided to inquire about telecommuting.

"I knew of course that it was technically feasible, but I wasn't clear on what the company policy was," said Mr. Kirkpatrick, who along with his wife, Sandra, had recently moved into their dream home on the Coan River in Heathsville, Va.

It was really too far to commute, so he rented an apartment in Northern Virginia and drove home on weekends.

"We had built this beautiful new home and were hardly ever there, and the apartment was too expensive," Mr. Kirkpatrick said.

But the timing of Mr. Kirkpatrick's interest in telecommuting was almost perfect. While he was considering how to approach his boss on the matter, the company had just completed work on its new policy, which encouraged managers to embrace telecommuting as a valuable work/life benefit as well as a cost- and space-saving tool.

Two years later, Mr. Kirkpatrick is one of many employees PRC executives refer to as "100 percenters," meaning they work full time from home and have no office within the company.

"I do go up once a week or so just to remind people that they work for me and visit the boss who likes to see me every once in a while," said Mr. Kirkpatrick, who also takes the time to raid the company supply closet.

He and Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who also works for PRC as a technical editor, had designated one room in their new home as an office, installing four phone lines and several extra electrical outlets.

Like many telecommuters, Mr. Kirkpatrick says working at home has vastly improved his life by reducing stress. Since he no longer has to drive to work he has an extra two hours each day on his hands.

It did, however, take Mr. Kirkpatrick a little while to adjust to the new style of work. At first, he would routinely spend much of his work day in his bathrobe.

"I realized quickly that that would not work. You really need to think of your home office as an extension of the company," he said. Now he dresses everyday in what cubicle rats might call business casual, pressed slacks, a button-down shirt and nice shoes.

PRC families

One criticism of telecommuting has been that it is best suited for technology-oriented employees and senior managers. That is a myth, said Mrs. Bohlman, noting that employees at nearly all levels have started telecommuting.

"I do a lot of things. Let's face it, I'm a secretary. Whatever you want to call it," said Kellie Baughman, who now telecommutes to work 30-hours a week for Litton PRC's corporate office.

Like Mr. Kirkpatrick's supervisors, Mrs. Baughman quickly found that her boss, Lee Karbowski, vice president of human resources for division headquarters, had fully embraced the notion of telecommuting and was willing to consider any and all requests.

Mrs. Baughman was a cherished employee, who in 1998 realized she was expecting twins.

"I had a very open conversation with Lee and she understood that it was important for me to be with my babies as much as possible," said Mrs. Baughman, now the proud mother of Erin and Megan, born 10 months ago just 10 minutes apart.

She loves telecommuting because, not only does it let her continue drawing income, it also allows her the opportunity to remain a part of the "adult world."

"I love the girls, but by the end of the day, I am ready to communicate with grown-ups and do something that is intellectually stimulating," she said.

It is a convenient arrangement, but certainly not easy. When her husband, Andy, gets home around 5 p.m. from his job on PRC's building operations staff, he sees his wife for a few minutes. They greet each other with a kiss, trade news about work and the babies, then Mrs. Baughman heads up to her home office to start work.

With so little time, dinner is usually an afterthought. Sometimes she can find time to make a stew. More often it's takeout. But telecommuting works for her, and the company will have as much work for her as she can do until she is ready to come back full time.

Home office technology

While PRC sets strict rules for the home office, the technology telecommuters use varies widely depending on the job. Often a telecommuter can work from his own home computer. But more often than not, PRC provides its telecommuters with spare laptops, fax machines and other equipment that has become dated in the office.

Mr. Long said PRC saves money when it gives telecommuters equipment because the company is getting extra mileage out of technology that would have been shelved anyway.

When employees with more technically advanced positions want to telecommute, PRC will sometimes need to send out a technician to install extra communication lines.

As telecommuting exploded at PRC, the company realized it would need to increase its ability to accommodate hundreds of people dialing into the mainframe at once. Mr. Long said this required significant investment, which has already begun to pay off in space and time saved.

Like many PRC telecommuters, Eric Nelson loves the arrangements, which allows him more time with his family.

"Rather than feeling like I have to stay at the office, I can come home early, spend some time with my daughter, Elizabeth, and then work in the evenings after she goes to bed," said Mr. Nelson, who manages Peoplesoft applications for a handful of PRC's government accounts.

But he notices that he is actually logging more hours for the company.

"When you leave the office, you leave the work. But now I have files at home and I am constantly finding reasons to work," he added.

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