Telecommuting Is Not Just an HR Perk

By Kate Lister on 4 July 2010 (Updated 6 January 2011) 0 comments
Photo: MCCAIG

Telecommuting emerged as a concept back in the mid '70s when former NASA rocket-scientist turned researcher, Jack Nilles, was summoned from California to Washington to do a secret briefing on his work. Told to be there the next morning, he packed up his overhead projector slides, endured a red-eye flight across the country, and arrived bleary-eyed only to have the meeting repeatedly rescheduled and then canceled late in the day.

On the flight home that night he realized an encrypted videoconference link to the Pentagon, installed two floors above his office, could have saved him from two sleepless nights and a wasted day. He realized a "telecommunications transportation tradeoff" was possible, and (thankfully) coined the words "telework" and "telecommuting."

Alvin Toffler understood the problem back then, too. In Future Shock (Random House 1970) he wrote, ''In a country that has been moaning about low productivity and searching for new ways to increase it, the single most anti-productive thing we can do is ship millions of workers back and forth across the landscape every morning and evening.''

By the '80s, traffic delays in metropolitan areas had doubled, and companies began experimenting with remote office sites to see if their employees could work effectively from offices near their homes. What they found was that productivity rose almost 20 percent, and they saved money using lower cost suburban space instead of expensive downtown offices. While fax machines were widely used to send a few pages across the country, FedEx came along back in those days with the audacious promise that they could deliver whole documents overnight.

By the 1990s, traffic congestion had tripled compared to the '70s and word was spreading that many work-related trips weren't necessary. The 1994 earthquake near Los Angeles reinforced the idea that distributed offices were a good idea. About that time the Internet made it possible for work to go to workers, instead of workers going to work. E-mail and file sharing were changing the nature of how we did business.

Then in 2000, Congress enacted a little-known law requiring all federal agencies to set up telecommuting programs, and decreed that federal workers should telecommute to the maximum extent possible. Largely ignored, the events of 9/11 underscored the need for operation continuity plans. Additional legislation approved by the Senate, but stalled in the House, aims to put more teeth in the federal programs by requiring agencies not to just show why workers should telecommute, but requiring it unless proof could be shown that the job prevented it

Occasional telecommuting grew significantly as the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close, increasing 74 percent from 2005 to 2008, though few companies had adopted it as a regular, multiple days per week, business practice. In fact, only about 2 percent of private workers and 5 percent of federal workers telecommute on a regular basis, although GSA says 61 percent could. In 2009, 12 members of Congress urged the House Transportation Committee and House Committee on Energy and Commerce to include telework incentives in the nation's energy and transportation laws.

In March of 2010, the White House Conference on Workplace Flexibility put its stamp on the importance of telecommuting for continuity of operations and fair employment. With uncharacteristic foresight, the federal budget for 2011 calls for a 50 percent increase in telework, and both the House and Senate have bills designed to enforce federal telework mandates because of worries over weather calamities, diseases, terrorism, and fuel prices. The economic mess of 2009 to 2010 has encouraged thousands of out of work people to take up freelancing. And one in four households have dropped their landline telephones in favor of mobile communications.

What if Congress authorized federal investment in a hypothetical Giganet System with a Federal Internet Act of 2010, just as the Interstate Highway System was authorized by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956? Like highways, an Internet superhighway would be an investment in, to quote an Interstate Highway document, "a new, higher speed, lower cost technology which fundamentally alters relationships between time, cost, and space in a manner that would allow new economic opportunities to emerge that would never have occurred otherwise." With the cost per lane-mile of urban highway at almost $4 million, and the cost per mile of information superhighway at $20,000, it should be a no-brainer.

There's also been some talk that Google's enlightened self-interest might result in a nationwide free WiMax service. Based on our imaginary Giganet as a backbone, it would be a pivotal piece that could revolutionize they way we work. Starting with remote communities, those with fewer job options, it would not only boost Google's click-through ad revenue, but also help put our economy back on its feet. In 2000, we looked back on 1980 and wondered how we managed to live without personal computers and cell phones. In 2020, we'll look back at 2000 and wonder how we managed without free online access everywhere, and why we accepted separate services for entertainment, information, and communications.

Telecommuting offers benefits for everyone, too. Highway congestion would be a thing of the past if those that could work at home (about 40 percent of the workforce) did so just half the time (the current average). It would take the equivalent of 10 million cars off the road, and people who still had to go to an office to work could enjoy what would again be super highways. Cities would be revitalized as access became easier. Baby Boomers could assume roles as online mentors, tutors, and educators. Thanks to them, and to modern telecommunications, universities would no longer be accused of having an edifice complex as students learned from home — something that an extensive IBM study showed is more effective than traditional learning. Disabled veterans and others with handicaps could have access to employment as easy as their able-bodied neighbors.

Our GNP would probably increase too, as study after study has shown that telecommuting increases productivity from 15-50%, although some argue that much of that results from people spending more time working. And that may be true — studies show that teleworkers are willing to put in up to 58 hours a week (while reporting greater job satisfaction), while their office counterparts feel that 38 hours is too much.

Economic, environmental, and continuity of operations demands suggest that telecommuting is more than an HR perk and should be a fundamental business strategy adopted, at the very least, by any company that has people sitting in front of a computer all day.

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