Shari Duron, Hewlett-Packard
business strategy consultant. Photo by Helen Sanderson.
by HELEN SANDERSON
JUST OUTSIDE HER OFFICE WINDOW, Catherine Puckett [photo below] sometimes sees deer tiptoeing through a grove of redwood trees. Once or twice she has looked up from her computer to spot a black bear lumbering past. The scenic view from her desk would likely be envied by her co-workers, if only they knew where she worked.
Puckett's "office" is a one-room cabin next to her home in Freshwater. Inside the cozy little lodge, rigged with two phone lines and a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) high-speed Internet connection, is a desk with two computers -- a desktop and a laptop -- filing cabinets, a stereo and a woodstove. The private and informal atmosphere, in addition to the fact that she often works in the wee hours of the morning, lends itself to wearing comfy work clothes, including pajamas.
"I dread the day that I have to get videoconferencing!" she added with a laugh.
Puckett, 48, the United States Geological Survey deputy communications chief for the Western Region, has been telecommuting from her home since 1999. She's the only person that she knows of in her organization who works in this fashion.
With the emergence of telecommuting -- or working for a company from your home via the Internet, telephone and fax machine -- more employees can live almost anywhere, hundreds and even thousands of miles away from their employer. For some telecommuters looking to trade their business suits for Birkenstocks, their destination of choice was Humboldt County. But while the digital era is making it easier to escape from the city, skepticism remains as to whether or not remote employment is all that it's cracked up to be.
When Puckett decided to move five years ago to Humboldt from Washington, D.C., where she worked at the USGS's national headquarters, she had not considered the idea of taking her job with her.
What the mother of three did consider -- courtesy of conversations with her two sisters, who live in Humboldt County -- was that jobs were scarce and wages were notoriously low on the North Coast. Neither factor dissuaded her plans to move west, but they were cause for concern, especially since her then-husband (they've since divorced) had recently been laid off. Providing financially for her family was critical, of course, but raising her children -- now ages 18, 14 and 8 -- in a small, safe community where they'd be close to relatives was becoming a priority.
The stresses of living in the big city were taking a toll. For instance, driving just two miles to take the kids to soccer practice took a half hour; the Pucketts' home was robbed one night as the family slept, and not long before they moved away, a neighborhood girl, close to the age of Puckett's eldest daughter, who was then 13, was kidnapped from her school bus stop and sexually assaulted.
Once Puckett was settled upon relocating in Humboldt County, the first order of business was to hunt for a job. With a background in science -- Puckett has master's degrees in both wildlife ecology and journalism -- she applied for a position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stationed in Arcata, and got an offer. The salary was $20,000 less than what she was already making, but it didn't matter. She told her boss that she'd been hired for a job in Arcata and got ready to pack up her things.
"I was really lucky because my boss [at USGS] sat me down and said, `OK. Let's see how we can arrange this so you can move but still work for us,'" Puckett recalled.
She was reassigned to the Western Region post, based in Seattle, so that she would be able to work from her home in Humboldt County. In addition to keeping her job, she also kept her considerable salary (equivalent, she said, to that of a tenured full professor at HSU). The only stipulation was that she had to be bumped down a level in job ranking, to a GS13, since she would no longer be in a management position. Taking the downgrade also annulled her chances of promotion, which in turn meant that she would be ineligible for a raise, since her income already put her at the top of the pay scale for her level.
Puckett's job is a high-profile one that keeps her writing press releases and speeches, fielding e-mails (sometimes up to 100 of them) and phone calls every day from folks at places like CNN and the Associated Press who want to know the latest on geological events in the western U.S. At 3:30 p.m. last Tuesday, for instance, when Puckett was getting ready to call it a day, a 5.2 offshore earthquake shook the coast of San Diego, and phone calls and e-mails from the media poured in for the next couple of hours.
It's humbling if not humorous to think that nationally vital information is dispatched from a pajama-clad mom in a rural town like Freshwater. Puckett talks about it in unpretentious terms; she calls the cabin her "writing hovel" and chalks up her plum gig more to luck than smarts.
"There is not a day that goes by that I don't look out my window and think about how grateful I am to be here. For 23 years of my adult life I didn't live near my family and now I can.
"I really think [telecommuting] is an option that can allow people to live the kind of life that they want," Puckett said. "Your life outside of work is the most important thing there is."
Without a doubt, access to the Internet has changed the way the world communicates. These days, conversations are often typed instead of spoken. Bills are paid with the click of a button instead of the lick of an envelope and a hello to the postman. School assignments are turned in to a teacher's e-mail rather than her hand. Right now some readers are likely logged onto the Journal's Web site, scrolling the computer screen with their mouse rather than flipping the page with newsprint-smudged fingers.
With last fall's completion of the fiber-optic cable that linked Humboldt County to southern California -- and essentially the rest of the world -- through a broadband connection, more North Coast residents have entered the digital era.
There are no data on the number of telecommuters on the North Coast, but there are probably more than there were a few years ago, according to Erick Eschker, a Humboldt State professor and director of the Index of Economic Activity for Humboldt County. He added that, considering government predictions of a decline in lumber harvesting -- meaning hundreds of jobs lost here in the next five years -- and the increased accessibility to technology, Humboldt County is "better poised for telecommuting" than it was in the past.
But while telecommuting seems to be a niche that fits Puckett quite well, some experts say that working for a company from home is not suited for everybody.
Tina Nerat, a board member for the Redwood Technology Consortium and consultant for the North Coast Small Business Resource Center, says that full-time telecommuting does not work out for many people. Isolation from coworkers, Nerat said, causes the telecommuter to be forgotten about. She added that telecommuting is not usually a good career move for someone looking to be promoted. Pay raises too, are harder to get when you're not seen or heard from.
"Once you're gone, you've fallen off of the radar of other people in the office," Nerat said. She gave an example: "Changes will be made in company policy, and [a telecommuter] won't know about it because they're not there."
Puckett would agree. She said that since she began telecommuting, she has worked harder than before to maintain her contacts within the USGS and also with scientists, researchers and media. Weekly teleconference calls keep her in touch with her department, she said.
Shari Duron [photo at right], 58, works for Hewlett-Packard as a business strategy consultant from her home on 20 acres of wooded land in McKinleyville. Part of being a successful telecommuter, she said, is making yourself an indispensable part of the company. Her husband, Hal Work, 57, echoed her sentiments. He also telecommuted for HP -- one of the largest computer companies in the world -- and before being laid off as a result of last year's controversial merger with Compaq, Work was employed at HP for 20 years.
"One thing you have to do is make your presence felt. If there are issues [in the company] you need to make your opinions known, otherwise you're out of sight and out of mind," Work said.
When the couple moved here in the spring of 2000 from Mountain View, 20 minutes from HP's headquarters in Palo Alto, they were not concerned about how they would fare as telecommuters. Many employees they knew at HP telecommuted from all parts of the country, so their decision to move 300 miles north didn't cause much of a stir. Most of the people in Duron's 25-person consulting team, in fact, are scattered all over the United States, from Massachusetts to Washington.
"It's possible to be `virtually' present these days," Duron said. "Your workplace is becoming irrelevant. What really matters is how well you perform."
The telecommuting transition for Duron was pretty much a breeze. The only setbacks that she faced were a slow Internet connection -- which has since been resolved with a DSL hook-up -- and traveling to HP, which she does almost once a month. Closures at Confusion Hill on Highway 101 have sent her backtracking to the alternate route on Highway 299, and fogged-in flights have also waylaid plans.
Aside from the occasional travel snafu, Duron said that the luxuries of working from home far outweigh the benefits of working in an office building. Like Puckett, Duron and Work enjoy incredible views from their home offices, which are just down the hall from one another. Duron has been in the middle of a conference call while simultaneously watching a family of foxes play in her unpaved driveway. During her mid-day break she sometimes takes her dogs for a walk, waters her flowers or plays a round of pinball -- an arcade-style Monopoly version of the game is tucked in the corner of her office.
"A gray cubicle just isn't comparable anymore," Duron said.
The laundry is calling...
Other issues that Nerat mentioned as problems for telecommuters are self-discipline and staying focused. For some people who work out of their home, it's tempting, she said, to start washing dishes, folding laundry or running errands when they should be working. For Puckett, distractions like housework are minimized thanks to having her "hovel" separate from her home.
Suellen Lowry [photo at left], 50, a Bayside resident, is an independent consultant for various environmental and faith organizations, including Earthjustice, the largest public interest environmental law firm in the country. For Lowry, her home and work life have begun to merge in the past six years that she has been telecommuting.
"Frankly, it takes less time for me to throw in some laundry and push a button than it would to sit down and chat with a coworker," Lowry said.
Cutting out the time spent shooting the breeze with colleagues, or organizing events like the annual Christmas party, she says, has made her a more efficient employee. Now she works with three clients as opposed to just one.
Another element of her merged home and work lives is evident in her daily to-do lists. Lowry prioritizes projects based upon how much concentration is required to finish them, and the ones that are not so laborious she saves for the moments when there might be distractions at her house.
"I know that when my husband or my son are home I can type up a memo or respond to a bunch of e-mails, so I tend to get the more time-consuming things done when I'm here alone," Lowry said.
Lowry's office is right in the center of the action -- the living room of the home she shares with her husband and 12-year-old son.
"When I started [telecommuting] I was the mother of a 5-year-old. I liked being in the middle of the house because my son would come home from school and we could visit for a little while, and then when he would go play I could keep an eye on him while doing my work," Lowry said. She is the type of person, she added, who could work in the middle of Grand Central Station.
Again, this is an area that Nerat warns against. Soon-to-be mothers sometimes assume that after they have their child, they will be able to work part-time in their home office while their baby goes down for a nap. Usually, she says, it doesn't work out that way, because as new mothers often find, caring for an infant leaves little time or energy for much else.
And as for wages, sometimes keeping a big city job does not mean keeping your big city wage. Duron explained that at HP, when employees decide to telecommute from another town, their wage is adjusted according to the cost of living in that area. This way, people who live in the cities are paid more, since it costs more to live there. (She declined to say what her income is.)
Lowry, too, mentioned that she is not making a killing as a telecommuter. Since she is an independent consultant for various organizations now instead of a full-time employee with just one company, her income fluctuates widely from year to year. It depends, she says, on how much work her client needs done and also how large the projects are. The average per capita income for Humboldt County according to the 2000 U.S. Census is $17,203, and Lowry says there have been times since she has been telecommuting that her income has dipped below that.
Before working for Earthjustice, Lowry was an attorney in private practice. Certainly what she makes now, as a telecommuter, is less than she made as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., she said. But during those days, she said, she worked until late at night all week long and then went back to the office on the weekends. She has chosen her current line of work in part to make a living, but mainly because she loves working for environmental causes and living in a beautiful environment, she said.
"Every time I've made a
job decision by following my heart, I've lost money, but every
time I've looked back I've known that I made the right decision,"
by HELEN SANDERSON
MANY PEOPLE CONFUSE TELECOMMUTING WITH TELEWORK -- though the two are a bit different.
Telework, also known as microenterprising, is work that is done for one's own home-based business using a computer. It is seen by many as the future of remote employment. The implications for the economic development of rural areas, some say, are particularly interesting.
Andrew Cohill, CEO of DesignNine, a technology consulting firm in Virginia, was invited to Humboldt last year to speak about technology management in rural communities at the Redwood Technology Consortium's Tech Conference. Like Tina Nerat, a member of the consortium's board of directors, he believes telecommuting is not a great career move for most people.
"In the late 1990s, advocates were saying that telecommuting was the wave of the future, but is hasn't turned out the way they said it would," Cohill said.
However, outlook for microenterprising is more promising, he said.
Microenterprising entrepreneurs may consider settling in a rural town if they can be convinced that it offers a great quality of life and that they can have access to affordable broadband connections, Cohill said. Then, their business can grow and they can recruit more people to move near them.
The drawbacks are that not everyone wants to be his or her own boss, nor an entrepreneur. An additional challenge for teleworkers on the North Coast is persuading banks to give them a loan to start a non-traditional business.
The North Coast Small Business Resource Center, where Nerat is a consultant, offers help to those who want to begin their own business. That's where Hal Work [photo above] turned to last year when he wanted to start selling his photography.
Work, 57, of McKinleyville, telecommuted to his job at the Silicon Valley-based Hewlett Packard until he was laid off last year. To occupy the time, he started combing through some of his old photography -- a hobby that he has had for the past 40 years. With computer programs like Adobe Photoshop, Work began changing the look of some of his old photos. He approached the North Coast SBRC with the idea of selling his work, and creating a Web site where it could be seen. The organization helped him set it up.
His business, Lucid Works, has just gotten off the ground this year, and though sales are slow in coming, the prospects are exciting. People can see his work at local galleries and venues like Arts!Arcata and then view them again on his Web site, lucid-works.com, which he anticipates will help him make more sales.
The change in livelihood has been both unexpected and welcome, Work said.
"I never realized I'd be in this business."
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.