Commuting from bedroom to home office

More Charlotte-area companies are helping employees work from home to save on office space and other costs.

The companies say workers need a break from high gas prices, and the programs also attract a wider range of recruits.

Kenny Colbert, president of The Employers Association, said the Charlotte human resources consulting company used to field one or two calls a month from organizations asking about telecommuting. It's increased to two or three daily the past 30 days, he said.

John Boggiano, a 29-year-old operations manager for Carrier Corp. in Charlotte, started telecommuting in February. He saves on gas and gets to eat lunch with his 1-year-old. He said Carrier promotes the option, in part, because it saves $19 a square foot on cubicle space.

“I definitely save on gas, and I don't eat out as much for lunch,” he said.

Some see a downside: Workers left behind in the office get stuck with the spot work, are less satisfied and more likely to leave, one study concluded. And those who telecommute are less likely to be promoted, a survey of executives says.

No one has tallied the number of Charlotte-area companies offering the programs, said Tony Crumbley, vice president of research for the Charlotte Chamber. But it's clear from talking to employers that more companies are getting involved, he said.

One of those is A3 Technologies, a 13-employee Matthews operation that helps companies with bar code and other inventory technologies. The company allows workers to telecommute one day a week, said Alice Davis, chief operating officer.

The month-old program has had the unintended result of increasing worker productivity, she said. “There are some things they can't do at home, so they get it done here.”

Compass Group, an international food company, recently started a one-day-a-week pilot program for its Charlotte information technology and accounting departments. It hopes 30 to 40 percent of the 1,000-employee operation will eventually work from outside the main office.

The food service giant, with headquarters in England, hopes an expanded program would result in cubicle-sharing, which would save space, said John Schiavarelli, an IT manager who helped set up one of the pilot programs.

The holding company, which owns the Wolfgang Puck food brand, also expects savings from utilities, he said. “There's less people flushing the toilet,” he said. “And we do have a really crowded parking lot. This would alleviate that.”

Piedmont Natural Gas rolled out a new program two weeks ago, said Janie Peeples, a human resources manager. The utility said about 50 employees have expressed interest of the 400 to 500 who work in the Charlotte area. Having a program will help with recruiting, she said, and improve productivity because some jobs lend themselves to quiet, at-home atmospheres, she said.

Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, a 7-year-old nonprofit that promotes the work-from-home movement, said the stigma of telecommuting as an at-home vacation seems to be fading as broadband and other advances make staying in touch and managing employees from afar easier. Wilsker said an employee's work ethic doesn't change just because he's at home. “It has nothing to do with where you're doing it.”

Bob Vaughn, a director of business development for information technology company Avaya Global Services, said his company is helping some Charlotte-area banks expand their existing programs. “We're seeing such an increase. This is an evolving space.”

Bank of America has about 2,000 employees in its My Work program, which started at the beginning of 2005 but “took off like a rocket ship” in mid-2007, said Mark Nicholls, corporate workplace executive for the bank.

Accepted employees agree to give up cubicle space for work at home, on the road or from a satellite office. A main advantage for the bank is recruiting new employees, Nicholls said.

The next generation of workers is used to a wireless world where classroom time is at a minimum and college course work is increasingly completed in cyberspace and dorm rooms, he said. “The younger generation, as we get into this war for talent, is not going to accept (cubicle work).”

He said studies show that when workers don't have to commute, they end up using about 70 percent of the saved drive time working. The program also has increased worker satisfaction, according to internal surveys, resulting in “higher productivity, lower turnover and a more positive image in the community,” he said.

Then there are the cost savings: A completely outfitted cubicle costs about $10,000 a year, Nicholls said.