Getting to work: By car, foot, bike or the Internet

Like any seasoned computer professional, Sue Hakomaki, a senior business analyst at UnitedHealthcare, knows that the best time to start a large computer run is early in the morning when Internet traffic is at its lightest. But getting to the office early for Hakomaki can involve a grueling battle with morning traffic as she drives from her St. Anthony Park home to work in the distant western suburbs.

Her solution? Once a week, Hakomaki can set her clock early, get up, and walk a few feet to her home computer, where she can launch her calculation before her fellow workers have even reached the on-ramp to the freeway.

For Como Park resident Amy Schoch, a program manager at the American Academy of Neurology in Minneapolis, telecommuting two days a week means that she can schedule conference calls or difficult one-on-one communications for the “peaceful and comfortable” atmosphere of home, far from the distractions of the open plan work space of her downtown office.

Dr. Katja Rowell works with clients across the globe at a desk in her home office. (Park Bugle photo by Lori Hamilton)

Katja Rowell, a family physician-turned-childhood-feeding-specialist, prizes the flexibility and low overhead costs built in to her St. Anthony Park home-based business. Her Skype and phone connections allow her to interact with clients from as far away as Germany, but she says, “I can get up from my desk at 11:30 and start the beets boiling for dinner.”

As a consultant on family eating habits, Rowell says, “I want to walk my talk” when it comes to “cooking meals in a low-stress way.”

Hakomaki, Schoch and Rowell work in vastly different fields. Their ages, temperaments, personal life choices and nonprofessional responsibilities vary widely. But in one respect, they are in perfect agreement: Like many modern workers, they are enthusiastic adopters of technology that allows them to spend at least part of their working life at home.

Our telecommuting rates are well above average

Telecommuting is on the rise nationally, and according to five-year estimates released by the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), a report of the U.S. Census, it’s even more common in parts of the Bugle area.

Just more than 4 percent of Americans are estimated to work mostly at home. In Minnesota, it’s closer to 5 percent, but in Falcon Heights and St. Anthony Park, the figures are much higher still. In north St. Anthony Park, for example, nearly one in five of all male workers operate primarily out of their homes.

In Falcon Heights, almost 10 percent of employed women work at home. Actual rates of telecommuting in the area are even higher than the Census estimates, since the ACS figures are for people who report spending most of their working hours at home.

Workers like Hakomaki and Schoch, who telecommute for less than half their work, are not reflected in the ACS numbers, even though the impact of their altered workweek on everything from their dry-cleaning bills to their mental equilibrium may be substantial. In fact, to hear them tell it, schedules like Schoch’s and Hakomaki’s may be ideal.

“I like to see [my colleagues’] smiling faces,” says Hakomaki about her preference for a mixture of working at home and at the office. “Complete telecommuters have to find other ways to maintain a presence in the office.”

Schoch enjoys her schedule so much that she says, “I don’t know if I can go back to five days at work anymore.” But she quickly points out that there are benefits to her employer, as well. “It’s a backup plan, if something happened to the [workspace downtown]. On a snow day, I’m expected to work.”

As for Rowell, who works exclusively at home, she says, “I miss having colleagues [close at hand]. I have to be proactive in cultivating colleagues.” Rowell also notes another drawback to her situation. Working at home makes it so easy to get to work, that it can be difficult to know when to stop. “I struggle to put a bookend at the end of the day,” she says. “I’m working on striking that balance between being accessible to online clients and setting domestic boundaries.”

Home office can get lonely

Feelings of isolation affect many of those who work at home, and some workers have come up with novel ways to address the problem. The Third Place, a co-working space at 2190 Como Ave. run by the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation, provides basic office amenities for a modest monthly rate.

“As someone who has worked out of a home office my whole work career, I do know that it’s sometimes hard to get down to work, especially when you are setting your own schedule,” says Jon Schumacher, executive director of the foundation.

Third Place users like Joel Donna appreciate the 24-hour access and Wi-Fi service. Donna, who holds a half-time appointment at the University of Minnesota, spends the rest of his working week as president and CEO of 3Ring, a nonprofit educational technology initiative supported by a Bush Foundation grant.

Although Donna frequently works at his home in St. Anthony Park, he says, “I needed a place where we could hold meetings and work with colleagues. It gets me out of the house.”

On a recent afternoon, Donna was sharing the Third Place with the 27-year-old co-founders of Howling Moon Software, a developer of games for the iPhone and iPad. Andy Korth of Inver Grove Heights and Scott Lembcke of Coon Rapids each work from home two days a week. The other three days they meet “halfway between” at the Third Place.

“We get stir-crazy if we spend too much time at home,” says Korth. “We need to bounce ideas off each other.”

“All we need is power and a place to sit,” adds Lembcke. “We bring our computers with us.”

Census researchers have found that telecommuting and other forms of working at home are most often associated with workers who hold advanced degrees and managerial or professional jobs, so it’s not surprising that residents of Falcon Heights and St. Anthony Park with their traditionally high levels of education and strong ties to local colleges and universities would score well on this measure.

According to spokesperson Susan Diekman, the University of Minnesota has a formal application procedure for telecommuting, but since such cases are “arranged at the supervisory level,” the university doesn’t maintain an overall count of employees who work from home. Hard numbers may be lacking, but it’s probably safe to assume that many faculty members occasionally work at home without the benefit of a formal arrangement.

Getting to the real office

Telecommuting aside, when it comes to getting to work, there are plenty of other indications that our area is unusual. In the Bugle area, even the workers who do go into the office often choose alternative ways of getting there.

Consider the national figures: According to the ACS, only 5 percent of Americans take the bus or other public transportation to work; another 2.8 percent walk; and less than half of 1 percent ride bikes to the office. By contrast, in the section of Falcon Heights that contains Commonwealth Terrace student housing, a full 40 percent of workers take the bus, as do one in five working women in south St. Anthony Park.

More than 7 percent of male employees in south St. Anthony Park ride their bikes to work, and if pedestrians in north St. Anthony Park display a certain heads-down concentration in their gait, it’s no accident. Many of them are on their way to the office. More than 12 percent of men in the neighborhood walk to work every day.

Even in a circumscribed area like the Bugle readership zone, there are big differences between the neighborhoods when it comes to the daily commute. In Lauderdale, for example, 11.5 percent of workers report taking public transportation, but only 1.6 percent of the residents say they work at home.

Working at home isn’t new

Of course, working from home didn’t begin with the computer age, and even now, not all home-based work involves telecommuting or other technological assists. Area residents work at home for all sorts of reasons, and they’ve been doing so since the area was first developed beginning in the late 19th century.

Electronic wizardry has made it easier for more of us to work at home, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll turn out better work. Here’s a case in point: In the depths of the Great Depression, a faculty wife from University Grove grew disenchanted with the quality of the Sunday school stories available to her children. Convinced that she could do better herself, she set to work in the family’s living room, writing in longhand while her children studied at the nearby one-room schoolhouse at the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues.

Working only a few hours a day, Carol Ryrie Brink created one of the enduring classics of American children’s literature. Caddie Woodlawn was published in 1935 and won the 1936 Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature. It has remained continuously in print ever since and was named one of the 100 Best American children’s books in 2012 by the School Library Journal.

And Brink did it all while working at home without any technological aids beyond the telephone.

 

When Judy Woodward writes about telecommuting, she knows whereof she speaks. A Ramsey County librarian and freelance writer, she spends much of her working life at her home computer dealing with techie crises like the “blue screen of death” that temporarily derailed this article while she was working on deadline. Fortunately, Woodward has a keen appreciation for the ironic.

This series has been made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on Nov. 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

    1 Response

    1. Alex Lodner

      As a freelance writer, I know the isolation that working from home can bring. Several of us often meet at Coffee Grounds on Hamline. We get to interact with someone other than our pets, and feel welcome to stay as long as we need. When you work from home, you have to create your own community.

      Thank you for a great article.

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