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Firms say home work's OK - if it's done their way

Millions of American workers, juggling the demands of children and other responsibilities, have sought the flexibility of working from home in recent years. But their arrangements have been mostly informal and ad hoc - based on relationships, trust and a handshake with the boss.

Some steal half a day at home here and there; others live a thousand miles from the office and have rarely been seen. Some use all the latest tools to stay in touch; others scrape along with leftovers cadged from the office supply cabinet. Few get support from their employers - technical or moral.Now an increasing number of corporations, acknowledging that such "telecommuting" is here to stay, are moving to impose structure and supervision on the arrangement. The goal is to allow coveted workers the flexibility and support they are demanding while addressing bosses' concerns about productivity, liability and fairness - in other words, to have it both ways.

In Somerset, Merrill Lynch is at the forefront of this latest twist in telecommuting. The Wall Street giant has set up what it calls the "Telecommuting Simulation Lab," whose goal is to teach people to work at home the Merrill Lynch way. That means everything from a formal application process and regular work hours to a company-approved chair.

The focus of all this attention is workers like Michele Jurkouich. Her skills as a systems analyst make her a prized commodity in the competition for technical workers in the New York region. But she says her role as the mother of 10-month-old Bryce makes her time at home equally valuable.

This fall, the company agreed to her request to work at home two days a week, meaning she can spend more time with her baby and less time commuting. But her bosses made their demands, too: By the time she begins her new arrangement, she will have undergone four full months of applications, interviews and formal training about how telecommuting should and should not be done.

"They want to make sure that everything you need to do from home, you can do," Jurkouich said. "I'm ready."

Her home work space was inspected by the company, which required her to buy an ergonomically correct office chair. A new phone line was installed and her regular office number will ring there. She spent two weeks in the simulation lab, doing her regular work physically cut off from her co-workers and managers, as she will be at home.

Workplace experts say that the Merrill Lynch lab is one of the most ambitious efforts in the country to regulate working at home and reflects a turning point in how telecommuting works.

"They're working very hard to institutionalize it," said Gil Gordon, a consultant who works with many companies, including Merrill Lynch, in formulating telecommuting programs. "It's the transformation from a feel-good kind of thing to a pragmatic tool of business."

The momentum toward greater order is coming from many directions. Lawyers fear that companies could be held liable if an employee is injured, say, while working at home on a bad chair. Security experts fret about breaches of confidentiality as more people log on to corporate networks during off hours to check their e-mail - a kind of de facto telecommuting that has exploded in volume. Human-resources executives have pushed for rules to help them avoid any appearance of bias in deciding who can and who cannot work at home.

Helene Garcia, a Merrill Lynch vice president and a telecommuting school graduate, said the new program "gives you the discipline that you need." Garcia is what Merrill Lynch calls a "converted" telecommuter - someone who was already working from home the old-fashioned way but who has been brought under the new organizational umbrella.

Garcia, who had been tele-com-muting two days a week since 1993, has new computer software that gives her full use of the internal and external e-mail system from home, and she gets computer support from a 24-hour help line. In the old days, she said, she was on her own.

"Before, I would scrounge around if I had a problem," she said.

In the Merrill Lynch lab, the line between work and home is blurred. The company has extended its reach into aspects of telecommuters' lives that had been the realm of personal choice, including rules for how to work at home, when to work and how to work safely.

Even the lab's view is calculated. The huge bank of windows, overlooking a swath of office buildings and woods, provides visual distraction to telecommuters in training, most of whom now work in windowless cubicles but will soon be tempted to gaze out blankly from the windows of their spare bedrooms. The philosophy is: They had better get used to it now.

There is also a refrigerator right around the corner, creating the potential for food distractions. Instructors discuss things like dealing with pesky neighbors who might see a car in the driveway and drop in for a visit. To better simulate the isolation of telecommuting, trainees are prohibited from going down the hallway to talk to friends and co-workers, though they can call them up on the telephone.