Shifting How We Work

Governments realize telework strategy benefits disaster recovery and business continuity planning -- as well as productivity.

by / March 5, 2007

Cassandra Carvajal is a busy woman. She works for a major Silicon Valley company, is starting her own fashion design business, and is raising two sons alone. Teleworking, she says, is the only way she can handle such responsibilities.

"I can work in the evening and free up my day if I want to drop off my son and meet my pattern maker," she said. "So I'm able to divide my time, and I'm a lot more flexible."

Carvajal is part of a growing number of teleworkers -- or telecommuters -- who operate from home or other remote offices. According to ITAC, a telework advisory group, an estimated 45.1 million Americans worked somewhere other than their principal office in 2005. For a while, employees sought the perks of teleworking, but more recently this practice has been embraced and promoted by all levels of government, with federal, state and local municipalities posing it as a preferable way of working.

The federal government is currently trying to give one-quarter of its huge work force the option to telework. Federal law mandates that all agencies have a teleworking policy and implement it to the "maximum extent possible for eligible employees."

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has an interagency Web site dedicated to teleworking, and since 2001, it's published The Status of Telework in the Federal Government, a report studying the trend. In 2005, the report concluded that out of the 82 participating federal agencies representing more than 1.8 million workers, 140,694 teleworked -- a 37 percent increase from the previous year, and an 88 percent increase from the survey's 2001 results indicating that 74,487 federal employees had telecommuted.

In planning for terrorist attacks and disasters, the Bush administration has made telework a central component of its Continuity of Operations Planning, and encourages state and local governments to include this strategy in disaster recovery and business continuity plans.

Employees who teleworked at least once a year grew from about 4 million in 1990 to 45 million today, said Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition. "I think in the next five years, people telecommuting in the private and public sectors will double," he added, pointing out that the benefits of this practice not only extend to employees, but also to companies, the environment and society.

"The advantages of teleworking for the individual are improved work/life balance," Wilsker added. "They save a lot of money on commuting costs, wear and tear on the car, and reduce stress from not having to commute."

The Telework Coalition claims the benefits for companies with a telework force are increased productivity and motivation, and less absenteeism, not to mention the real-estate cost savings of not having to supply offices.

Working from home could also solve several commuting-related problems, such as traffic congestion, pollution from car exhaust and -- on a more global scale -- our dependency on foreign oil, Wilsker said.

Government Initiatives
States and municipalities are increasingly considering telework, and bills are emerging nationwide to encourage government employees to work from home offices.

With its 1983 Telework-Telecommuting Program, California was the first state government in the country to embrace teleworking on the premise "that work could be performed in other than conventional offices that are typically located in central business districts." In 1987, California began a three-year teleworking pilot program to help manage an increased demand for office space. The resulting study found additional benefits to teleworking, including improved work effectiveness and an enhanced quality of life.

Furthermore, in the late 1980s, then California Gov. George Deukmejian issued an executive order directing the expansion of the teleworking program to help offset the state's traffic congestion problems. Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Bernardino and other California cities also initiated their own programs.

Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia and Washington caught on to the success of California's telecommuting initiative and implemented similar programs. Nearly every state agency with teleworking practices cites the reduction in traffic and air pollution as primary benefits, which amount to savings in road construction, maintenance and compliance with air quality restrictions.

As a part of its 1988 Air Quality Bill, Arizona conducted its own pilot program in 1989, requiring state agencies to lessen employee work trips to reduce air pollution. The study found that 80 percent of supervisors felt teleworking increased productivity, while 76 percent said it increased employee morale, and 86 percent felt the program should be expanded.

Employee Support
Workers also espoused teleworking, and 98 percent of participating employees felt the practice should be expanded. A large majority claimed teleworking not only helped with meeting their objectives, but also with effective time management, organization and a positive work attitude.

As a result, in 1996, Arizona state agencies were required to implement the program, part of which aimed at turning 15 percent of the nearly 21,000 state employees in Maricopa County -- which encompasses Phoenix -- into telecommuters. After achieving that goal in 2002, the governor expanded it to 20 percent participation.

In 2005, Georgia followed the trend and established the statewide "Work Away" initiative, which encourages teleworking and alternative scheduling options, and provides up to $1,200 in tax credits for each telecommuting employee. According to the Georgia Merit System Web site, teleworking options increase job performance, satisfaction and employee morale, while reducing absenteeism, retaining valued employees and "improving the quality of life for all Georgians."

In September 2006, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine signed an executive order that created the Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance within the Office of the Secretary of Technology to encourage telework for public and private employers. Kaine acknowledged telecommuting reduces traffic and air pollution, and allows a wholesome balance between work and family. By 2010, the Virginia General Assembly wants to shift a significant number of jobs to alternative schedules that allow teleworking.

In Houston, where traffic can be gridlocked for hours during heavy commute times, the city recently sponsored "Flex in the City," a two-week effort to encourage employers to allow more flexibility in work hours and teleworking to reduce traffic congestion.

Despite the growing numbers of teleworkers, regular commuting continues to grow, with a national average commute time of 25.5 minutes, according to Alan Pisarski's Commuting in America III, a study published by the Transportation Research Board.

However, the fact that governments are promoting telecommuting suggests a radical shift in our society -- a shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, according to Telework 360

Chandler Harris Contributing Writer