Commentary

Telecommuting Could Ease Los Angeles’ Traffic Woes

Time for employers to revisit telecommuting policies

Instead of wailing about gas prices why don’t more Angelinos just ditch the commute and work from home? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Unlike carpooling or taking transit, employees can telecommute only with their bosses’ permission-and that’s something most area workers don’t have.

Bosses often resist telecommuting and for a long while logistics made the practice more trouble than it was worth. But skepticism persists even as technology makes working from remote locations increasingly feasible.

Computers continue to get cheaper and faster, and in the span of a single decade the Internet and cell phones have gone from novelties to tools that average Americans use every day. So much progress, and yet, according to a survey of LA area employees who don’t telecommute, 80 percent have bosses who still won’t let them work from home.

There are plenty of employees just waiting for their bosses to give them the nod and it’s not surprising that workers like telecommuting. A recent MONEY magazine/Salary.com survey found that satisfied workers had more work-at-home options than other respondents and that unhappy workers were the least able to telecommute.

Why should bosses care?

Respected companies like AT&T, American Express, and JetBlue have learned that telecommuters are more productive workers. Telecommuting also helps managers find the right person for the job, a task that’s difficult in LA, where traffic congestion shrinks labor pools rather dramatically. In a recent Center of Economic Development report, a local accounting firm CEO remarks that one reason “we do not have enough talented people to service our clients is that most of our employees spend an hour driving each way to and from work.” Transportation woes, coupled with other hassles like expensive housing, make it harder to recruit good talent.

Telecommuting gives employers another carrot to dangle in front of new recruits and the power of the carrot doesn’t disappear once workers get hired. One manager notes that his new employees work hard to earn the opportunity to work from home and those who have the privilege work hard to keep it. He credits it with increasing employee loyalty and keeping workforce turnover costs low.

Telecommuting suits LA’s workforce quite well because the area is home to one of our nation’s highest concentrations of early adopters. These folks make quick use of new technology, meaning that they are particularly comfortable with the tools of remote work.

Managers who remain skeptical have many ways of ensuring that at-home workers aren’t just gorging on daytime TV. New technology even lets them take random screen shots of telecommuters’ computers and chronicle their ever key stroke.

Certainly telecommuting isn’t for everyone, but some managers dismiss it because they mistakenly regard it as an all-or-nothing choice. Some people do avoid the office entirely, but others work from home only occasionally. Roughly 23 million Americans work from home at least once a month, which means that more than 100 million workers don’t telecommute at all.

But telecommuting isn’t just something you do, managers and employees must learn how to do it right. Consider these tips.

Start small. Allow occasional telecommuting, say, once a week. Increase frequency only after workers prove they can work remotely.

Insist on accessibility. With telecommuting physical location is less important, but workers should always be accessible to managers, colleagues, and customers.

Make employees earn the right to telecommute. Let new hires telecommute only after they’ve been with the company for a certain period of time.

Focus on results. Telecommuting gives employees more freedom over the process of work, but results should remain non-negotiable. The employee and employer should be clear about what’s expected and, as much as possible, performance should be tied to metrics that are easy to measure, such as projects completed, clients served, or revenue generated.

We are indeed creatures of habit. For many decades we made the trek to the office because that was the only way we could get business done. If that were still the case it might be less aggravating watching so much of our money funnel into our gas tanks. But with the explosion of telecommuting-enabling technology and the mounting evidence that at-home work boosts bottom lines our nation’s managers have more reason than ever to give telecommuting a second look.

So what do you say, boss?

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst and Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation. An archive of Balaker’s research and commentary is here, and Reason’s telecommuting and transportation research and commentary is here.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.

Ted is the director of Can We Take a Joke?, a Korchula Productions feature documentary about the collision between comedy and outrage culture featuring comedians such as Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, and Adam Carolla. Ted is producing Little Pink House, a Korchula Productions feature narrative about about Susette Kelo's historic fight to save her beloved home and neighborhood. The film stars two-time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener (Capote, Being John Malkovich, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Emmy nominee Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love, The Firm, Basic Instinct).

Ted produced the award-winning shorts The Conversation and Cute Couple. He is an executive producer on the feature documentary Honor Flight, and produced the film's first trailer, which attracted more than 4.5 million views. The Honor Flight premiere attracted an audience of more than 28,000 and set the Guinness World Record for largest film screening in history.

Ted is a founding member of ReasonTV, where he produced hundreds of videos and documentary shorts, including Raiding California, which introduced a nationwide audience to the Charles Lynch medical marijuana case.

Ted is co-creator of The Drew Carey Project, a series of documentary shorts hosted by Drew Carey, and creator of the comedic series Don't Cops Have Better Things to Do? and Nanny of the Month.

His ReasonTV contributions have been featured by The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, and on the he John Stossel Special Bailouts and Bull, a first-of-its-kind joint project between ABC News and ReasonTV.

During Ted's tenure, ReasonTV received the Templeton Freedom Award for Innovative Media and in 2008 Businessweek recognized his short Where's My Bailout? (created with Courtney Balaker) as among the best of bailout humor.

Prior to joining Reason, Ted spent five years producing at ABC Network News, producing hour-long specials and 20/20 segments on topics ranging from free speech to addiction.

Ted's written work has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Reason magazine, The Washington Post, and USA TODAY. He is the author or co-author of 11 studies on topics ranging from urban policy to global trade, and his research has been presented before organizations such as the Mont Pelerin Society and the American Economic Association.

Ted is co-author (with Sam Staley) of the book The Road More Traveled (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), which Chapman University's Joel Kotkin says "should be required reading, not only for planners and their students, but for anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive."

Ted has appeared on many radio and television programs, including ABC World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News, and has interviewed hundreds of thinkers and innovators, ranging from X Prize recipient and private spaceflight pioneer Burt Rutan to Templeton Prize-winning biologist and philosopher Francisco Ayala.

Ted graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Irvine with degrees in political science and English.