Virtual workplace 

To do her job, Leslie Kellogg needs a computer, color printer, telephone and fax machine -- standard office equipment. But sitting alongside them are less-standard appliances: A washer and drier.

That's because Kellogg's office is in the laundry room.

"For a while," she says, "when the washing machine started its spin cycle, my computer would automatically reboot. There was an electrical glitch of some kind. It was like, poof! and whatever I had on screen was gone."

Kellogg and partner Angelia Allsbrooks run a business called Presentation Perfect, which originally did freelance work preparing formal sales presentations for corporations. One day, Allsbrooks was asked if they could do Web sites, too. Sure we can, she responded. No problem.

She and Kellogg had to hurry up and learn how.

Now, Kellogg and Allsbrooks mainly make Web sites -- in their basements, at all hours of the day and night. Like millions of Americans today, they are experimenting with a new way of work. They are highly skilled and fiercely competitive. To survive, they have to be.

Welcome to the work-at-home scene.

Work-at-home is the oldest American trend. Its practitioners embrace the most deeply rooted American values -- self-reliance, individualism, and love of privacy.

With powerful technologies in hand, more Americans than ever are now staying home to work. A recent study reports that 11 million Americans telecommute to their offices. That's an increase of 30 percent in two years, up 175 percent since 1990.

Another 3 million Americans will work at home by the year 2000.

Allsbrooks works as an information systems analyst for a Detroit area medical community. Wired to the central office with an ISDN line, she works an eight-hour day. She also finds time to do payroll, also at home, for a local construction company. And she works on Web sites with Kellogg.

They communicate online, Riverview to Dearborn, usually late at night, to develop products and build their business. It's a faster, more efficient way of working together that eliminates many of the hassles of doing business in the "real" world.

It's more than being able to work in sweats. At the office, a co-worker might drop by to chat for 15 minutes. Down the hall, the guy with the annoying laugh is telling another bad joke. Some employees need that social time; others just want the freedom to work. And the freedom to spend quality time with their work instead of with their cars.

"I used to have a two-hour commute every day," Allsbrooks says. She persuaded her boss to let her try working offsite by proving it made sense: By maintaining productivity and meeting deadlines, she stayed on top and stayed happier, too.

"When I went to the real workplace for a meeting," she recalls, "I wasn't just prepared. I was actually happy to be there."

Convinced it worked, the company bought her a computer and installed the telephone line that has become her link to her workplace.

In some ways, it makes life easier all around.

"In the morning," says Allsbrooks, "I ship my kids off, stay home, and look after my work. If I need to run errands or go to meet a teacher, I can do it."

It sounds comfortable. But in the age of downsizing, work-at-home also means more pressure to perform.

In Bloomfield Hills, Peggy Dion works out of her basement as a sales representative for a legal publishing company. Ten years ago, she was one of 400 reps nationwide. Now a staff of 140 does the same work and then some.

"When my kids were young," Dion says, "they didn't even know I worked. It was that laid-back. Today it's stressful. You have to perform."

Six years ago, when the company she works for shifted from publishing hard copy to making CD-ROMs, employees got a weekend of training. A truck loaded with computers pulled up to a hotel in Miami, Dion says, and everyone got laptops.

"Then you were on your own," she says. "You basically had to teach yourself."

She manages her time with coded faxes and voice mail. "Read this immediately." Or, "Low Priority: Listen to this message at the end of the day."

"Some days I look up and it's two o'clock," she says, "I'm still in my bathrobe, and I've worked a full day."

That's one of the drawbacks for workers, and advantages for employers: Telecommuters tend to put in extra hours without even noticing.

"I start work on my business about 10 at night," says Kellogg. "It's two a.m. and I'm working like mad. I think, I'll just work another 45 minutes. At 3:30 a.m., it's, 'Oh, well, I'll be in bed by five'."

Allsbrooks, however, insists on maintaining a clear line between work and nonwork.

"You need to manage your time," she says. "You need the discipline to do the work. And you need the discipline to stop doing the work."

But in general, stay-at-home workers tend to be more productive than their officebound counterparts.

"That's a huge benefit for a company," Allsbrooks says. Add to that the savings on office space, and it's easy to understand why distance employees are popping up all over.

"I pay the light bill," Dion says. "The company gets the output."

And overall, telecommuting makes for happier workers -- as long as they're doing something they enjoy.

"You need to like your work," Allsbrooks says. "After all, you spend most of your life doing it."

Is it lonely?

"We talk to each other every night," Kellogg says. "Online."

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