all seem to be predicting continued growth in the number and type of telecommuting workers.
The broader acceptance of telecommuting is also reflected in the number of state and local agencies that have started to adopt it. With this acceptance have come more formalized procedures for successfully running telecommuting programs. This is particularly important since some have estimated that as many as 50 percent of initial telecommuting efforts are destined to fail. Despite that statistic, the question no longer seems to be whether agencies will have telecommuting workers, but when and how many. Perhaps more importantly, agencies are increasingly called on to help enforce environmental laws that mandate reductions in automobile-generated pollution. In some cases, agencies are helping commercial businesses set up successful telecommuting programs by providing guidance.
Flowering in the Desert
Maricopa County, Ariz., instituted a mandatory trip-reduction program (TRP) in 1988. Originally aimed at employers with more than 500 employees, it has since been amended to include employers with 50 or more employees. Telecommuting is one of several ways employers are encouraged to reduce the number of single-occupant trips to meet their TRP goals. Although the law doesn't penalize companies for failing to meet TRP goals, nearly 1,100 companies are participating in the program, and 381 have telecommuting listed in the trip-reduction plans they are required to file with the county.
The 1998 clean Air Campaign and Trip Reduction Program Survey, conducted by Westgroup Research, showed that 7 percent of employees in the program's target area were telecommuting, saving more than 900,000 commute miles per day -- that's 32,200 pounds of pollution not produced.
To help companies overcome what has been identified as a primary barrier to starting a telecommuting program -- the expense of putting equipment into employees' homes -- Maricopa County started "Arizona Donates Office Products for Telework" (ADOPT). Companies that have excess or outdated equipment are encouraged to donate it. The equipment is then repaired or upgraded by high-school students who are learning about computers through a programmed called Students Recycling Used Technology (StRUT). Once ready, the computers are provided free to employers for their telecommuting employees. Employers and employees must agree to participate in the program for at least a year but otherwise are not charged. As an incentive, employees who remain active in the program for a year are given their computers outright.
Maricopa has also taken the lead by putting forms online, covering such things as telecommuting policies, equipment lists and surveys to help identify the best candidates for telework programs.
While telecommuting is obviously beneficial in those states with air pollution laws that encourage or require employers to reduce the number of trips, it often also provides productivity boosts. General agreement is that telecommuting can raise productivity approximately 20 percent. A majority of the participants in a Kensington Technology Group survey released in April 1998 claimed they accomplished 30 percent more work in the same time when telecommuting.
A quick review of many telecommuting sites confirms the general sense that telecommuting has broad beneficial effects -- for the employer, employee and the environment -- and that telecommuting will continue to grow in popularity. However, the implications of telecommuting become even more important when seen against the backdrop of current technological developments.
Next Generation Telecommuting
Telework, as it is being implemented today, is setting the precedent for the telework of the future. Getting from where we are today to the "virtual office" of tomorrow is not a foregone conclusion, but most pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place, such as several key technologies.
However, the biggest barrier to the virtual office is the same barrier facing all of the most exciting Internet applications: the lack of affordable and ubiquitous high-speed bandwidth.
The good news is that a large number of companies are working to tackle the problem. Cable modem and ADSL are becoming viable alternatives. When the bandwidth problem has been solved, and it will happen in steps rather than all at once, employees will begin to realize that location is largely irrelevant for much of their work.
Those agencies that have highly developed telecommuting programs, or experience working with commercial companies to implement telecommuting solutions, will have the best chance of taking advantage of the next wave in telecommuting: the virtual office.
David Aden is a senior consultant for webworld studios -- a Northern Virginia-based Web application development consulting company. Email