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Will a computer free you from the freeway?

Some mornings, Randy Raymond heads for work in a turquoise bathrobe. His commute entails a short hike upstairs and a stroll past his wife's sewing table. Then he settles down in a cozy loft overlooking the living room and logs on to an IBM personal computer. He's a software programmer for Aetna Life & Casualty, and working at home is just one of the perks of his job.

About twice a week, Mr. Raymond can forgo the arduous 45-minute drive into Hartford. His home terminal ties into Aetna's central computer by phone. His co-workers and supervisor keep in touch by sending messages to his computer. For Mr. Raymond, the soft music and solitude of his rustic home provide the perfect setting for greater productivity.

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Patricia E. Burdick discovered just the opposite.

A year ago, this programmer analyst at Union Mutual Life Insurance Company was expecting her first child. At first she wanted to take a leave of absence. But she was encouraged to try working from home. Shortly after her daughter was born, Mrs. Burdick was pecking away at a computer keyboard at home. Three months later, she threw in the towel and went back to the company's Portland, Maine, office.

''I was supposed to be working part time, but it felt like full time. ... For a while I was on a guilt trip because my daughter needed me, yet I needed to get my work done,'' she recalls.

She fell behind on a project, then started working weekends and occasionally ''sneaking'' into the office at night.

''Problems seem magnified at home,'' Burdick says. ''You can't deal with conflict as effectively. Some days I felt stranded as I waited for phone calls from co-workers or supervisors. I used to drive in just so I could straighten things out.''

She did enjoy the benefits: having no commute or day-care expenses and making her own hours. As the first participant in a pilot program, she thinks the experience advanced her career. But she says, ''Never again.''

With the proliferation of personal computers, some labor experts predict that by 1990 from 5 to 15 percent of the US work force will be telecommuting - working from home with a telephone and computer link to the office. Proponents of this work style cite the success of programs such as the one involving Randy Raymond and 11 other Aetna programmers. Telecommuting is heralded as the next great social and economic revolution in the workplace.

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But such rah-rah talk for home-site work has been around for years - long before ''Megatrends'' author John Naisbitt plied the lecture circuit. And the experience of Patricia Burdick hints at obstacles yet to be hurdled, both by management and would-be telecommuters, before corporate America joins the cheerleading squad.

Like Mrs. Burdick, most employees see telecommuting as enhancing their prospects for promotion, according to Charles McClintock, associate professor at New York State College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. From his study of 140 telecommuters, Mr. McClintock theorizes that workers see themselves as pioneers and will be rewarded for their initiative.

But as the novelty wears off, some worry that by working at home, they'll miss out on advancement opportunities. ''In a company the size of Aetna, visibility plays an important role,'' says Mr. Raymond.

Union Mutual's vice-president of new environment development, Ken Dolley, agrees: ''There's no question that 'out of sight, out of mind' will apply to some extent. If a programmer didn't show up for six months, human nature is such that that guy isn't going to be remembered. That's why the manager has an obligation to the employee to stay in contact.''

Another potential hazard that is seldom considered is the effect on home life. Burdick says adamantly: ''If you think working at home is not going to impact your home life, you've got to be joking. ... This is definitely a life-style decision.''

In McClintock's survey, people said they spent more time working and had less leisure time. Conflict over time and space devoted to work was much more of a problem than people expected.

Frequently, both experts and workers interviewed said that telecommuting only works in certain jobs (the most common so far: data entry, programming, consulting, research, and writing positions). And usually the initiative must come from the worker. ''A number of people have turned it down because of strong feelings that you don't mix the two environments - home and work,'' McClintock says.

He did find, however, that many respondents had a greater sense of satisfaction with their relationships and communicated more with their families.

One drawback to home work is that people enjoy the office banter and camaraderie. At home, they miss the social contact.

''People end up forcing themselves to be with other people because of the isolation aspects. If they've been on the road a week or two, they utterly demand to come home - to the office,'' says one manager of a telecommuting team.

''One or two days a week is fine. But all day, every day would get a bit lonely,'' says Jennifer Wallace, another Aetna programmer who works at home occasionally.

Regularly scheduled office visits or limiting the number of days at home helps combat the isolation problem. ''We recommend that employees come in one or two days a week,'' Marcia M. Kelly, president of Electronic Services Unlimited, a telecommuting research and consulting firm in New York. ''Companies should also set up communication provisions so (home workers) are not missing interoffice memos.''

But how does one tap into the all-important office grapevine?

''One of our clients suggests the 'buddy system,'' says Ms. Kelly. ''In addition to a supervisor or co-worker, assign one person to keep your interests in mind. Really this person acts as a social contact to fill you in on when there's a party celebrating someone's engagement.''

From management's perspective, telecommuting can offer a lot: lower office space costs; recruitment from a wider geographic area; or tapping other labor sources such as the disabled, semiretired, and women with young children. Almost universally, productivity goes up and turnover is reduced. The McClintock study shows workers feel they have more control, produce higher-quality work, and get more satisfaction out of their jobs.

Yet, management generally shows considerable resistance to the idea.

The objections Ken Dolley at Union Mutual hears are: ''How am I going to supervise these people?'' Or, ''I've got problems enough managing these people in the office. The last thing I need is 40 here and 10 spread out over the countryside.'' Other managers don't understand the technology, and that can sour them, Dolley says.

The quality of supervision actually increases, according to Mr. McClintock's studies. ''Work tends to be evaluated more on merit than on social issues,'' he notes.

''In the office, if you look busy - whether you are or not - that can positively influence a manager's evaluation. Telecommuting forces you and the manager to agree on what's good work and what the standards are.'' McClintock points out, ''This is generally thought of as simply good management practice.''

The slow progress toward more widespread telecommuting is ''simply resistance to change,'' asserts Jack Daily, a telecommunications manager at Tymshare in Cupertino, Calif. For more than a decade, many employees of Tymshare, a computer time-sharing and network communications subsidiary of McDonnell Douglas Corporation, have worked out of their homes. ''Of 23 people, I'm the only one here now,'' Mr. Daily said in a recent telephone interview.

''If you're a manager resisting the concept, you need to ask yourself, 'Am I becoming part of the problem?' Daily suggests.

For telecommuting to work well, says Daily, top management must be supportive. Once it becomes part of a company's corporate philosophy, he says, then middle managers must be allowed to apply it where they see fit - it won't work in every department.

He also counsels that managers select employees with a high sense of dedication. It makes it easier on the manager. ''One woman is on a religious retreat this weekend. She left a meeting this afternoon with a terminal, so I know she'll be working. I don't worry about it. I just have to know where she is so I can get in touch with her if I have to.''

Working the kinks out of telecommuting and gathering support for the idea may take some time. Even after several years, most corporations contacted still classify their programs as ''experimental.'' Many have only a handful of employees involved.

Marcia Kelly of Electronic Services Unlimited points out that some companies may not be aware of the extent of informal telecommuting already occurring. But the telecommuting profile may rise in the near future. According to Ms. Kelly, several states are planning programs that would employ ''several hundred workers'' from their homes.

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