The decision to forego the daily commute and work from home might not seem particularly revolutionary. Yet telecommuting has a positive impact on a surprisingly wide range of issues.
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.
Other than driving alone, 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 most work days, roughly 20 million telecommute for some period at least once per month, and nearly 45 million telecommute at least once per year.
And telecommuters drive less than office workers. During the days they telecommute, workers reduce their daily trips by 27 to 51 percent and driving (vehicle miles traveled) by 53 to 77 percent. Although they effectively receive no public subsidies, telecommuters actually outnumber transit commuters in a majority (27) of the 50 most populous metropolitan areas. Telecommuters outnumber transit commuters in places like San Diego, Dallas, and Phoenix. They outnumber commuters by more than two to one in places like Raleigh- Durham, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Nashville. In Oklahoma City telecommuters outnumber transit commuters by nearly five to one.
Telecommuters tend to be highly educated and financially well-off. Most of the top telecommuting metropolitan areas tend to be fast-growing regions with high concentrations of technologically savvy workers who feel comfortable using the Internet and other tools common to remote work. Denver, Portland, and San Diego are the top three telecommuting metropolitan areas (as measured by the percentage of workforce that telecommutes). Atlanta and Washington, D.C. lead the nation in telecommuting growth, yet every major metropolitan area has experienced strong growth.
Many strong social trends suggest that telecommuting will become even more prevalent in the future. For example, telecommuting-enabling technology continues to improve, telecommuting-friendly jobs are becoming more prevalent, and workers have shown they enjoy telecommuting. And why not? Telecommuting offers potentially big cumulative time savings. In most of our nation’s large cities, those who telecommute “usually” (three out of five work days) for a year would save five or more calendar days (roughly 15 8-hour work days). New York City commuters would save the most time—nearly 8 days (23 work days) per year.
Yet even with all these benefits, the workplace often resists telecommuting. There are three formidable barriers to increased telecommuting: technology, perception, and public policy.
Slow, complicated, and expensive technology can make telecommuting more trouble than it’s worth. Yet technological barriers are becoming less daunting all the time and as they continue to recede, other barriers become more significant by comparison.
Telecommuting often improves bottom lines and yet managers are slow to embrace the practice. Many still regard telecommuters as low-grade slackers, loafing at home when they should be in the office working.
It is odd that public policy so often hinders telecommuting, particularly since elected officials are some of telecommuting’s most enthusiastic supporters. But, from unfriendly zoning ordinances to frustrating tax laws, political barriers to telecommuting can be found at every level of government. The right reforms can end the disconnect between lawmakers’ kind words and their less than cordial policies.
Technology has done its part to spread it and America’s workers have shown they are open to it. Now it’s up to our leaders in politics and business to allow telecommuting to reach its full potential.