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.