Telecommuting -- or teleworking as some prefer to call it these days -- is not an especially new concept, but few government agencies have widely embraced it. Why? Take an example from Scott Adams' comic strip "Dilbert." Dilbert -- videoconferencing from home -- sits in an old robe, with a five o'clock shadow, holding up a clean-shaven Dilbert puppet to the camera. All this effort is, of course, to hide the fact that he just rolled out of bed.

Adams' humor touches an element of reality about how many people perceive telecommuters' work habits. Many middle managers possess the point of view that a worker isn't performing on the job unless: (1) the person is working in the same place as the manager; and (2) the person's work is being done in the traditional, sit-at-your-desk-and-do-it format. It is this mindset that has prevented efforts to launch telecommuting programs across the country.

Today, however, cooperative deals are being proposed among federal, state, and local government agencies and private industry to bring employees together to work at telecenters and from home offices.

The idea is to have every level of the national work force cooperating to reach goals that include fostering a more family-friendly workplace, accommodating employees with disabilities, improving productivity and helping improve air quality and other environmental problems generated by commuter traffic.

In September 1992, Congress appropriated $5 million to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) for the acquisition, lease, construction and equipping of telecommuting centers for use by federal employees in specific states. In 1993, Congress amended that legislation by increasing the funds to $6 million and expanded the territories involved.

Telecenters were established in Virginia and Maryland, including centers in Winchester, Hagerstown, Charles County and in Spotsylvania County. "We were not the first to do telecenters," said Warren Master, deputy director of Office Workplace Initiatives, GSA. "We went out and visited telecenter programs in Los Angeles, Olympia, Wash., and Seattle. We wanted to see what we could learn and what remained to be done so that we didn't repeat any mistakes.

"What we found is that three or four small telecenters aren't enough for organizations to have people work in a distributed manner. We discovered the best model has people working from home and using the centers to do things they can't do from home -- like send faxes, use videoconferencing facilities or use the center's T1 line to take better advantage of the Internet."

GSA has done intensive studies to find out whether or not the telecenters are working. In an interim report, called "Federal Interagency Telecommuting Centers," which is available at , the following results were cited: "The average daily round-trip commute to the principal worksite is 102 miles, with a range from 50 to 224 miles each day. On average, telecommuters use the centers 1.5 days a week and spend two hours and 40 minutes per day traveling to and from the office. With an estimated average commute to the telecenters of less than one-tenth the time and distance of the normal trip, each participant will reduce total distance traveled to and from work by more than 6,000 miles annually; and reduce total commuting time by close to four hours a week, or more than 160 hours a year."

In regard to how agencies benefit from the telecenters, the report is less quantitative and stated, "At this point in the pilot undertaking, there are no data on agency benefits. However, it is expected that through surveys and focus group feedback the project team will be in a position to quantify improved worker productivity. Another anticipated result is the potential for facility cost savings."

Even though the four federal centers are still under close scrutiny, GSA decided to step up the project to include state and local agencies who are able to