MILL VALLEY — With its quaint shops and leafy residential roads, it’s easy to mistake Mill Valley for simply a quiet, upscale bedroom community across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
Truth is, there’s as much wheeling and dealing in this town as in a big-city skyscraper.
From their Mill Valley homes, Joe Caldwell handles the investment portfolios of millionaire clients, Robin Thompson works with large corporations like Wells Fargo or Oracle, promoting Canada as a meeting destination, and Marilyn Jackson’s computer consultancy clocks in at three clients a day.
The three are part of a growing contingent of Americans whose commutes consist of a walk down the hall or a jaunt to the converted garage.
The number of Americans working at home three or more days a week grew nearly 23 percent, from 3.4 million in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures. Mill Valley topped California’s list, with 15.4 percent of its 14,000 residents working at home.
The census category includes farmers, so South Dakota, at 6.5 percent, leads other rural states atop the nation’s work-at-home list. And the census only partly reflects the growing scope of telecommuting, since millions of others work from home one or two days a week as corporate America has grown to accept more flexible schedules.
“The biggest constraint was managers letting people telecommute, and that’s diminishing,” said Patricia Mokhtarian, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.
The estimated number of Americans who telecommute at least some portion of the week jumped more than 42 percent in two years, from 19.6 million in 1999 to 28 million in 2001, according to the International Telework Association and Council. Most live in New England and on the East and West coasts in areas with dense populations and notorious traffic congestion, said Tim Kane, the organization’s president.
More than two-thirds of telecommuters surveyed by the group said they’re more satisfied — or much more satisfied — since they began working at home, Kane said. “They’re saying, ’This is three hours I don’t need to be in the car, and I could be with my kids, pick the dry cleaning, or whatever.”’
The changes are evident in Mill Valley, where people armed with laptops, cell phones and personal digital assistants set up shop among the latte-drinkers at the Depot Bookstore and Cafe, its outdoor patio overlooking the town square.
“I see all kinds of people now — they’re figuring out retail or real estate issues or calling suppliers,” said Peter Graumann, a clerk at the store. “It’s not just the writers and artists anymore.”
Now that computer firewalls allow secure connections to corporate networks, work-related communication can happen anytime, anyplace.
“People are amazed they get e-mails from me at 5 a.m. or 10 p.m.,” said Thompson, a manager for the Canadian Tourism Commission, her first full-time telecommuting job in a 20-year hotel industry marketing career.
Instead of leaving by 6 a.m. to beat the traffic over the Golden Gate, Thompson can be hard at work by dawn. If her 13-year-old daughter needs her during the day, she can complete a chunk of work later in the evening.
Productivity doesn’t suffer, many telecommuters say.
“There’s no office chitchat, no ’how was your weekend?”’ Thompson said. “I get a lot accomplished without all the interoffice distractions, and no commute.”
A computer, phone line, dial-up modem and Internet access are all many telecommuters need. For many home-based small businesses, their storefronts are on the Web and delivery services come to the door.
As Jackson, owner of mjacksoncomputers.com, puts it: “I’m really not based anywhere. I’m really based in the Internet, which is the tech universe.”
The computer consultant walks through her rose garden to her workspace in a converted garage. Between e-mails and house calls, she squeezes in a daily 5-mile hike from Mill Valley to the Pacific Ocean, and avoids peak road congestion periods.
It’s all about regaining a more balanced quality of life.
“People don’t want to put in the 16-hour days to drive an hour-and-a-half or two from home and then come back,” said Charlie Grantham, chief scientist who telecommutes himself at the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work, a think tank based in Windsor, Calif., in northern Sonoma wine country. “And corporate America is beginning to examine how to use technology to connect the workers they need with the work that needs to be done, regardless of where the workers are located.”
In fact, of the 8 million business subscribers of broadband services expected this year, more than 60 percent will be for residences, according to In-stat/MDR, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research firm.
At Cigna Corp., where about 9,000 of the 43,000 employees have arranged with their managers to telecommute, a formal E-Worker program was started two years ago. Already, 2,100 workers have signed up, getting additional training, home-office equipment and technical support.
Productivity increased by as much as 15 percent, and job turnover rates have been cut nearly in half in some divisions of the Philadelphia-based insurance company.
Now, Cigna is adding “touchdown spaces” in more of its 250 offices for workers who occasionally need shared offices for meetings or social contact. It also has a call-forwarding system allowing untethered employees to answer their direct lines wherever they are.
Support services also are adapting.
At Mill Valley Services, a printing business, owner Dave Semling needs the latest technologies to serve his clients. Last week, a client e-mailed a document, which he printed on a four-color press and then sent to another at-home worker on the East Coast.
Many companies have come to recognize telework as a recruiting tool. Scimagix Inc. of San Mateo, which does imaging software for drug companies, offers two-day-a-week telecommuting as it competes for engineers.
“You have to do this to run a business,” said the startup’s co-founder, Bryan Van Vliet, a married father of two young children who now works at home three days a week himself. “You’re looking for a good pool of talent, and you can’t always find someone who lives 10 minutes away.”
Jackson, the Mill Valley computer consultant, said telecommuting helped her raise and support two children after her husband died of cancer.
“It made a huge difference to me that when I woke up or that when I came home from school, she was here,” said her oldest child, Noah, a 20-year-old UC Berkeley student. “And being able to eat as a family every night made a big difference, too.”