- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

Telecommuting has long been touted as a way to save the environment and reduce traffic. But area politicians now say it is a way to preserve business operations — and even save lives — in an emergency.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly said employees’ ability to work from home is the key to keeping governments and the private sector operating in emergencies ranging from snowstorms to another terrorist attack.

“I won’t be surprised if in the future the federal government requires every federal contractor to file a continuity of operations plan,” Mr. Connolly said. “God forbid, but if there is a dirty bomb downtown and you can’t get into the U.S. Transportation Department, how will you perform your job?”

Last month, Mr. Connolly asked his county executive for a feasibility plan to require Fairfax County contractors to show how they would continue operating in an emergency.

“It is a security issue,” said David Snyder, chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “Teleworking significantly improves the survivability of the public and the ability of the transportation system to do what it needs to do.”

Mr. Snyder said if there is a need to evacuate the District, or even just a snow emergency, it helps if fewer people are traveling.

About 310,000 people in the region telecommute, according to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) survey. COG defines telecommuting as working at least one day per week from home.

Mr. Snyder said information-technology firms in the private sector are leading the trend.

“There are another 420,000 people who would telework tomorrow if given the opportunity,” Mr. Connolly said, citing the survey.

COG has been trying to promote what it sees as untapped potential, but has been hitting resistance and apathy. A 2003 telework workshop in Rockville was canceled because of lack of enrollment. About 40 business leaders attended workshops that year.

Jim Larsen, executive director of the Dulles Area Transportation Association, conducts workshops for companies exploring telecommuting.

“For some it’s a win-win, ‘let’s get started’ approach. For other companies, it’s a whole question of, ‘How will I know they’re working?’” Mr. Larsen said. He said after companies try it, they find productivity and morale can increase.

In the city of Rockville, 155 employees telework out of the 525 eligible. That is 18 percent of the city work force, said personnel administrator Mary Kate Cole, noting that many employees, such as police officers and sanitation workers, can’t work from home.

Miss Cole said telework makes the city more productive during weather emergencies and helps with parking problems.

“I think we’re pretty much past saying, ‘Yes, he’s teleworking today,’ as if that means he’s not doing anything,” Miss Cole said.

Merni Fitzgerald, a Fairfax County spokeswoman, said about 5,000 of the county’s 11,000 employees are eligible for telework. The goal is to have 1,000 up and running by year’s end, and so far, 800 are.

Julie Withrow, a policy analyst for Loudoun County, said 10 percent to 15 percent of regular employees — or about 300 staff members — telecommute at least one day per month. Over the next six months, the county hopes to expand that number to 15 percent to 20 percent of eligible employees.

Arlington County was unable to give overall telecommuting numbers, saying it’s a matter for each department head. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland also were unable to provide overall numbers.

COG’s goal is to promote telecommuting at least one day per week and to encourage businesses and governments to offer a written policy — not just an informal agreement with a manager. Using that uniform standard, COG hopes to have 15 percent of the region’s work force telecommuting by the end of the year, up from the current estimate of 12 percent.

“It can’t just be a nice thing to do if you really want to do it,” Mr. Connolly said. “It needs to be a clear policy.”

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