Telecommuters team together;

times square

or other ways to avoid Times Square.

By Erin O’Neill

Buried beneath our streets and seas lie the fiber optic cables that allow entire continents of people to communicate and trade in the economic phenomenon known as globalization. That same spidery web of cable connecting people in different countries has also spawned a new trend taking place in the cafes and bars of south Brooklyn.

At noon on a Thursday a health care consultant, graphic designer, architect and accountant sit in a French bistro on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens talking about the Spitzer scandal and things to do in Brooklyn – and not one of them took the day off. It is the office break room evolved – fitted for the needs of the growing population of Brooklynites that work from home.

“When you’re home all day it’s nice to find people to meet up for lunch,” said Ginger Smith Carls, a healthcare consultant who works from her home in Park Slope.

Technology has laid the foundation for this whole new breed of American workers – people who work from home and commute online. An estimated 45 million Americans telecommuted in 2006 – up from 4 million in 2003 – according to the International Labour Organization’s World of Work. They come largely from the professional class – investment bankers, fashion designers, account managers – and make up a growing number of employees who spend their working hours behind brownstone walls.

But this new mode of working has one problem – many employees fear a lack of personal contact that cannot be satisfied while dressed in sweatpants working on your laptop from home. In Brooklyn, this growing group of telecommuters have found ways to replace water cooler banter by spending their lunch hour with other telecommuters at local restaurants in the area, instead of at their kitchen table – alone.

Allison Make, an account manager for a Boston-based pharmaceutical company, started telecommuting from her Kensington apartment a year and a half ago when she decided she wanted to move from Boston to New York without leaving her job behind. But she worried that she would miss the human interaction.

“I’m very social,” said Make. “I do talk to people throughout the day on conference calls and email, but it’s when I have down time that I can go a little crazy.”

So Make joined the Park Slope Lunch Meetup Group – a social network formed online that meets for lunch every two weeks in a different restaurant in Park Slope and adjoining neighborhoods. “It gets me out of the house,” said Make.

lunch meetup screenshot

Jeffrey Drexler, a 57-year-old architect who works from home at Park Slope, worked in office buildings as an architect from 1978 to June of 2007. When Drexler started spending his days behind his desk at home and not at the office he realized he missed the personal contact and group lunches that are the staples of an office environment. “I miss meeting up for after work drinks,” said Drexler. To assuage this growing loneliness Drexler joined the Park Slope Lunch Meetup Group nine months ago to meet new people and expose himself to new opportunities.

Peter Karp, a software developer from Park Slope, started the meetup group over a year ago to fulfill what he saw as a growing need in his neighborhood. “There is a sacrifice of socialization when you are working at home, and this was one place where people could come out and have that social interaction,” said Karp, who has telecommuted in some form or another for the past 20 years. The group currently has 83 members – a typical lunch caters from five to ten of those members. “People come for a break,” said Smith Carls, who now organizes the lunches. “The people that end up staying really enjoy meeting new people.”

Those same people – people who work from home – produce more, have better morale and less stress, according to a 2006 study by the Telework Coalition, a non-profit organization that advocates working from home.

This increase in productivity stems from decreased distractions in a work at home environment, according to Chuck Wilsker, President and CEO of the Telework Coalition. “People look at work as a social opportunity,” he said. “At home you have fewer distractions and people put in more hours.”
The only downside to the telecommute is occasional feelings of isolation, said Wilsker.

“There are so many good reasons to do it [telecommute] that I don’t know why people don’t do it more” said Wilsker, who has worked from home for the last six years.

The lack of time hanging around water coolers chatting about the latest sports scores or presidential candidate gaffe does not phase Peter Karp’s regard for the telecommute. “A lot of people ask me if working from home is distracting,” said Karp. “I find it less distracting than working in a office, where a lot of time is spent standing around the coffee pot.”

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