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Gas prices fuel telecommuting

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Every time Laurie Shannon makes the 160-mile round- trip drive between her home in Belchertown, Mass., and her office in suburban Boston, she uses five gallons of gas and shells out $5.10 in tolls. With prices at the pump skyrocketing, she has devised a partial solution: fewer commutes.

"If there's nothing that requires face-to-face meetings, and if I have everything I need with me, I can work at home three days a week," says Ms. Shannon, a research psychologist at WFD Consulting in Newton, Mass. With a laugh she adds, "My dogs like it, too."

Shannon is in the vanguard of a quietly growing band of Americans turning to telecommuting to reduce gas costs. As they work at home, typically a day or two a week, they are spurring a shift that could eventually turn the United States into what workplace analyst John Challenger calls a "telecommuter nation."

"Companies are just beginning to become aware that employees are coming to them here and there, asking for help," says Mr. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm headquartered in Chicago. "They're seeing more absences. It's still under the radar, but as gas prices hit $3 a gallon, it's beginning to make a real impact on people's decisions with their employer."

Twenty-six million Americans work from home at least one day a month, and 22 million at least once a week, according to the International Telework Association and Council.

Even before the current round of price increases, Shannon telecommuted one day a week, then increased it to two. Describing the corporate culture at WFD that makes this possible, senior consultant Monica Roper says, "We're super-flexible. Nobody even blinks an eyelash when somebody says, 'I'm going to start working from home more frequently.' "

Not all employers are so amenable. "I'm finding that there's more resistance than I would expect," says Paul Kole, a telecommunications consultant in Cambridge, Mass. "Managers think there's a loss of control, that workers are going to goof off. But often they work harder."

Caty Kehs, a web designer in Silver Spring, Md., encountered that kind of resistance recently when she considered a job opportunity in suburban Virginia.

"I asked about telecommuting, but they said that didn't seem feasible," she says. "This employer wanted people to be on-site."

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