As $3-a-Gallon Gas Becomes Reality, More Americans Choosing to Work From Home

As gas prices kept going up, her patience kept going down — Robin Rothstein had simply had enough.

After spending hard time each day behind the wheel working as a real estate agent near her home in Germantown, Md., Rothstein says trading in her life on the road to work from home as an independent customer service representative is one of the best things she has ever done for herself — and her wallet.

"I love the fact that I can get up in the morning, go downstairs, get breakfast and start working," Rothstein, 52, said. "I also love the fact that I don't have to worry about being in traffic or about outrageous gas prices."

As spiking gas prices have hit new highs above $3 a gallon over the past year, business at one company specializing in setting people up to work from home has also been on the march upward, to the tune of a 20 percent rise. Rothstein is one of the many Americans who have changed careers due to rising fuel costs. After crunching the numbers, Rothstein says the decision was a no-brainer.

In her previous career, Rothstein's 2002 Chrysler Town & Country guzzled between $50 and $100 of her paycheck every week. Each time she filled up the tank (which she did twice a week) she felt like she was flushing her hard-earned cash down the drain, she said. Additionally, the driving added hours and stress to her workday, not to mention wear and tear on her minivan.

So, late last year, she converted one room of her family home into an office, and she found a position with Arise Virtual Solutions, a Miramar, Florida-based company that trains independent customer support personnel for companies like Walgreens and Verizon. After passing Arise's screening test and background check, Rothstein bought a computer and chose her clients: Home Depot and the Lasik Vision Institute.

Mary Bartlett, Arise's vice president of talent management, says Rothstein's story is like that of many of her clients. In fact, when Bartlett asks potential customer service reps why they want to work from home, more than ever she hears complaints about high gas prices and time spent on the road.

"I hear the same stories," Bartlett said. "They say, 'Because I live in a rural area, or because traffic is so terrible in the Atlanta area, I'm spending a whole lot of money only going one way, and I'm putting my whole paycheck into this.'"

Bartlett says high gas prices were a big factor in the 20 percent rise in the number of people applying to Arise's programs in the past year.

It's not surprising. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005 an estimated 3 million Americans commuted more than 90 minutes to work each way — almost twice as many as in 1990. Fifteen out of every 100 Americans traveled 45 minutes each way.

Since late 2006, Maureen Schaffner of Houston human resources company Administaff noticed a decided uptick in the number of her San Francisco area clients — mid- and small-sized companies — interested in the possibility of employees working from home. She says higher gas prices play a role.

"Here in the Bay Area, gas prices are usually first or second [highest] in the country," said Schaffner, Administaff's San Francisco team leader. "If they're coming by themselves in the car, they'll drive one or two hours. It's really impacting the workforce."

But higher gas prices alone shouldn't inform someone's decision to work from home, said Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Delaware Lerner School of Business.

"People thinking about just the cost of gasoline should also think about other perspectives like: Will I be productive and will it be fun?" Thacker said. "It's not for everyone, by far."

It takes a whole new set of skills to work independently, Thacker said. Working from home requires the ability to focus and ignore household distractions. Also, people working from home need to know how to effectively get things done via e-mail or conference call and combat feelings of isolation, which can harm productivity.

Bartlett said working from home is not a perfect fit for everyone. Only 10 to 15 percent of applicants make it through Arise's rigorous screening process.

"You have to be a self-starter," Bartlett said.

On the flip side, some who have the opportunity to work from home just by nature of their profession instead PAY to set up shop. Many freelance workers rent shared office spaces, choosing to commute rather than stay home.

Last November, Chris Messina and Tara Hunt founded Citizen Space, a San Francisco-based office for the self-employed, after they both tried working from home.

"We were working out of our living rooms and out of coffee shops," Hunt said. "It wasn't good for our business, our clients and our own peace of mind."

For $350 a month, self-employed professionals get a desk, wireless Internet access and drinks, as well as a supportive community at Citizen Space.

"We create external motivation," Messina said.

But these "commuters" cut down on "pains" at the gas pump in other ways.

While one of their members rides his motorcycle to the cubicle-less office, the rest bike to work or take public transportation. Messina and Hunt said they didn't even take parking options into account when choosing their location.

"We don't even own a car," he said.

Even if she had a neighborhood office space to rent, Rothstein, would rather stay home, she said.

After all, her current office has two windows, giving her plenty of natural light and a view of leafy trees.

"I personally can't see any downsides," Rothstein said. "I don't have to worry about gas prices."

"I'm never going back," she added.