Telecenters: Down, but not out

The telework center seemed like an idea whose time had come. Scattered throughout metropolitan areas and equipped with PCs and communications links, telecenters would be easily accessible to federal workers and get them off congested highways.

The reality has been less successful, however. The 16 telework centers operated by the General Services Administration in the Washington, D.C., area are under.utilized and lost $1.7 million last year. An outside consultant earlier this year recommended closing all but one.

But Paul Chistolini, deputy commissioner of GSA's Public Buildings Service, said it is too early to close the centers. He expects legislation passed last year — giving agencies four years to enable 100 percent of eligible workers to work from home or at a telework center — to boost interest in the GSA centers.

At the 16 D.C.-area centers, only 189 of the 339 available workstations are being used at any one time. With 150 more users, GSA could eliminate its operating deficit. Only the Frederick, Md., center operates at 100 percent capacity and should remain open, according to AEW Capital Management LP. The consultant recommended that the others be closed during fiscal 2001.

Agencies pay GSA $25 to $30 per day per employee using the telecenter. Higher fees are being considered to help GSA break even, Chistolini said.

"The cost of [computers, portable printers and office software] has fallen so much that a manager could afford to outfit two or more employees for the same cost of annually sending one person to a telecommuting center," he said.

"It's a personal thing," said an official at the Office of Personnel Management, where a few telecommuters prefer the GSA centers. "Some don't feel disciplined enough to work at home, and at the centers, they are not as tempted by the TV or refrigerator."

Those less-disciplined users and the telecommuting legislation may give telework centers a much-needed boost.

"I believe there will always be a niche for the telecenters because not everyone can work at home because of distractions or inadequate workspace," Chistolini said, adding that employees may also "need more services than can be provided at home, [such as] copy machines and videoconferencing."

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