Office Workers Today, Teleworkers Tomorrow: Marketing Office Space in the Telecommuting Age

Today, we're told, more than 20 million American employees work out of their home offices--they "telecommute," in cyber-jargon.

June 1, 1996

That's enough to dismay any commercial broker. After all, the teleworking trend could translate into a significant decrease in the need for commercial office space.

But William Wheaton, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Real Estate, says the oft-quoted U.S. Commerce Department statistic can be a bit misleading.

If you subtract the people who telecommute only a few days a week, those who take their briefcase home for extra work at night, and those who run a small business out of their home, what's left is about 100,000 full-time salaried workers who've traded their formal corporate space for at-home offices, he says.

That adds up to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. workforce, Wheaton says.

"Right now, it's not a big factor. That's not to say it won't loom on the horizon. Lots of companies are trying it, but not everyone is having success with it. There are inherent problems with telecommuting, such as monitoring workers and judging productivity," says Wheaton.

There are drawbacks for employees, too. Working at home means isolation. For some the draw of the office watercooler outweighs the benefits of staying home.

At least so far, no one's predicting the ruin of downtown office buildings. But corporate number crunchers seem to like the fact that teleworkers---even those who stay at home for just part of the week---cut down on expenses. Some companies, such as IBM and AT&T, have been able to eliminate entire floors of office space. American Express, Du Pont, Pacific Bell, and Best Western have profited from the telecommuting trend as well.

Your Role in 'Techno-trimming'

Teleworking's not necessarily bad news for you. Instead, you might view the trend as a giant business opportunity: the chance to help long-entrenched companies revamp their office space to meet their new, reduced needs, suggests B.K. Allen, CCIM, owner of B.K. Allen Real Estate, Vienna, Va. "Just because you give workers the option of telecommuting, it doesn't mean you aren't going to need office space. Clients are going to have different space requirements, and that's where a broker comes into the picture."

Allen, president of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute (CIREI), says she's already consulting with companies on a fee-for-service basis, advising them on how to adapt work space to the demands of new technology.

So is Jay R. Lucas, CCIM, president of Harry B. Lucas Co., Dallas. He recently helped Intel Corp. cut back on its space.

"They said they wanted to give up about 20 percent of the space they were leasing. The division using that area had started a telecommuting program. They still need conference rooms, because their teleworkers come in to meet with their managers, but they don't need as many offices," says Lucas, who successfully renegotiated the lease.

Saving Money: A Potent Force

Lucas says rising rents will fuel the telecommuting trend: "Rents have increased by more than 40 percent in the past 18 months, and they'll continue to go up. Companies will start looking for alternatives."

Rent money isn't the only thing companies save by jumping on the telecommuting bandwagon.

"We're imploding," says Burke Stinson, a spokesman for AT&T. "We saved $80 million in 1994 by having employees telecommute. We don't pay taxes, rent, heat, air-conditioning, or any of the other expenses that go with running offices for those workers."

One of every three AT&T managers now telecommutes at least a few days a week, says Stinson. He expects that by the end of the decade at least half will have tried it.

That Dreaded Drive Time

Even office workers who can't stand the isolation of full-time telecommuting want to spend less time commuting. That means the largest growth of demand for commercial space will most likely be in suburban communities, according to John M. Peckham III, CCIM,president of the Peckham Boston Advisory Co., Boston.

"If I had to guess, I'd say satellite offices closer to where people live will be the growth item of the future," he says. "The effect will be most profound on the central city, because the technology revolution means that companies, as well as employees, won't be tied down to a specific spot."

In fact, the growing number of governmental agencies and large companies with telecommuting programs has increased demand for hoteling---office space rented per hour as needed---and telework centers, where employees share offices in a company-owned or company-leased commercial space.

"You might have two or three executives using the same desk, often in areas closer to where they're living," says Allen.

In the Washington, D.C., area, for example, some government workers are trading in their Metro passes. The U.S. General Services Administration now has two satellite offices for federal teleworkers in Fredericksburg, Va., with a total of 8,000 square feet, including 50 workstations and several meeting rooms.

On the West Coast, the Antelope Valley Telecommuting Center, Lancaster, Calif., provides shared office space for telecommuting employees of UCLA, HealthNet, and The Chubb Group.

"The employees see it as a family issue," Allen says. "They want to be home for at least part of the day, because they want to be there when the kids come in from school. Yes, they have to remain productive and working, but they want to be there for hugs."

Stay Ahead of the Telecommuting Curve

For more information on telecommuting, contact the Telecommuting Advisory Council at 204 E St. N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/547-6157, or visit TAC's World Wide Web site at

And while you're surfing the Net, you can learn more about telecommuting at

Writer Kathleen Howley is a real estate reporter for The Boston Globe.

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