Telecommuting Can Add to Our Mobility

As telecommuting share grows, so do the benefits

‘Telecommuting’ became common parlance in the mid-1970s, when advances in communications technology began to close the gap between the home and the workplace. Since then, telecommuting has become increasingly popular. No longer seen as an exception to the rule, telecommuting has become a readily available-and often coveted-option for workers in a growing number of industries. Many of the benefits of telecommuting have remained constant over the years, but evolving technologies and changing cultural attitudes have paved the way for a number of the hidden benefits of telecommuting to finally be realized.

In recent weeks, telecommuting has been in the news as a result of policymaker’s efforts to encourage both public and private sector employees to telecommute. Virginia state officials promoted a “telework” day on August 3, 2009. A story about the event appeared in the Washington Post shortly after, and last week the Post reported that the United States Office of Personnel Management has been pushing federal government employees to telecommute.

The renewed interest in telecommuting makes sense: Telecommuting has a positive impact on many of the most prominent political and cultural issues dominating popular discourse today. In a 2005 Reason Foundation study titled The Quiet Success: Telecommuting’s Impact on Transportation and Beyond, my colleague Ted Balaker notes a number of these effects. Balaker writes:

Telecommuting may be the most cost-effective way to reduce rush-hour traffic and it can even improve how a weary nation copes with disasters, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks. It helps improve air quality, highway safety, and even health care as new technology allows top-notch physicians to be (virtually) anywhere. Telecommuting expands opportunities for the handicapped, conserves energy, and-when used as a substitute for offshore outsourcing-it can help allay globalization fears. It can even make companies more profitable, which is good news for our nation’s managers, many of whom have long been suspicious of telecommuting.

Ted’s insights about the advantages of telecommuting are true today on an even larger scale, as technology has advanced to extend the availability of low-cost broadband, personal computers, high-performance collaboration tools, and virtual meeting software. All of these tools are adding to the popularity of telecommuting.

Telecommuting significantly reduces travel costs while reducing commuters’ environmental impacts. According to the report, The Perfect Storm: Driving Telework in State and Local Agencies [PDF], congestion wastes 2.9 billion gallons of gas in the United States each year, creating a $78 billion annual drain on the economy. Higher levels of cultural awareness about the effects of climate change coupled with the latest downturn in the economy have made telecommuting an appealing alternative.

Today, telecommuting also has support from both the public and private sector, which provide assistance in establishing telework networks. According to the Office of Personnel Management Report to Congress [PDF], dated August 2009, 78 federal agencies reported a total of 102,900 out of 1,962,975 employees teleworking. Forty-eight agencies (61%) reported an increase in their overall telework numbers and 27 agencies reported cost savings/benefits as a result of telework. The greatest benefit reported was to morale (24 agencies), then productivity/performance and transportation (22 each), then human capital (21) (note: agencies could select all that apply).

Besides driving, telecommuting is the only commute mode to gain market share since 1980. The Census Bureau notes that from 1990 to 2000 the number of those who usually worked at home grew by 23 percent, more than twice the rate of growth of the total labor market. Since 2000, telecommuting has continued to grow in popularity. Roughly 4.5 million Americans telecommute on most work days. Twenty million workers telecommute for some period at least once per month, and nearly 45 million telecommute at least once per year.

The major barriers to telework have not changed: resistance from management, organizational culture, and IT security and funding. However, these barriers are clearly being lowered.

The number of teleworkers increased from 94,643 in 2007 to 102,900 in 2008 (8,257 more teleworkers, an increase of 8.72%) and the percent of total employees teleworking increased from 5.12% to 5.24%. The frequency of telework also increased both in number of employees and number of days.

A Telework Exchange report [PDF] summarized the results of the August 3, 2009 telework day promoted particularly in Virginia:

  • 95% of participants were located in Virginia
  • 4,267 employees participated in Telework Day
  • 22% of participants had never teleworked before Telework Day
  • 25% of participants previously only teleworked on an ad-hoc basis
  • Almost 60% of the participants were in the Richmond area reflecting the encouragement of the governor.

A great deal of the effort in Virginia is aimed at convincing the businesses of the benefits of telecommuting, in order to reduce managerial uncertainty about telecommuting. The report found that the top benefits to the business of providing telecommuting options for employees include:

  1. Work/Life Balance for Employees
  2. Productivity
  3. Recruitment and Retention
  4. Environmental Impact

Telecommuting can be another tool adding to the options of relieving traffic congestion. According to the Telework Exchange review of Virginia’s telework day, “In one day, Virginia participants collectively: Avoided driving 140,000 miles, removed 75,890 tons of pollutants from the air, saved $113,000 in commuting costs.”

The study estimates that “if all interested teleworkers with suitable jobs teleworked one day per week (50 weeks per year), in a year, teleworkers in the Commonwealth would collectively: Avoid driving 602 million miles, remove 360,800 tons of pollutants from the air, save $807 million in commuting costs.”

The societal benefits of telecommuting will only continue to increase, as new technologies develop, allowing more and more people to join the teleworkforce. While we have already come a long way, my general the conclusions are the same as those made by Ted Balaker in 2005: “Technology has done its part to spread telework as an option and America’s workers have shown they are open to it. Now it is up to our leaders in politics and business to allow telecommuting to reach its full potential.”

Shirley Ybarra is senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation and previously served as Secretary of Transportation for the Commonwealth of Virginia.