The Five-minute Commute and Beyond

Born in an L.A. traffic jam, bringing the office

by / March 31, 1999
The day starts with a wake-up call from your PC, reminding you of an 8:30 conference with your agency's district managers. You roll out of bed and say, to no one in particular, "Set up the connection to the video hub and start calling anyone not logged in by 8:25 a.m. Oh, and call Smith and ask him if he'd like to attend."

Before you shower, your PC establishes the video connection, makes the call to Smith and starts the morning's pot of coffee. By the time you get out of the shower, your PC tells you Smith won't be attending but would like a summary. You tell your PC to add Smith to the post-conference summary distribution list.

When you settle into your home office chair at 8:27, four managers are on screen, visible in their own split screen windows on your monitor. Two are in their agency offices, the other two in their home offices. Two other windows have "Will Return in 2 Minutes" posted in them.

You greet your managers and let them know there's been a slight agenda change. Your computer posts the new agenda you dictated in the car while driving home from work last evening, and it appears in yet another split screen, ready for comments. Two managers ask for hard copies, reach to take the page out of their printers, and the meeting is under way.

OK, maybe that won't happen in your agency next week, but it's not because the basic technology doesn't already exist. Voice recognition and affordable voice-activated control of home electronics is a reality. Ubiquitous access to network resources is also technically feasible, although moving seamlessly from office to car to home with no disruption may be a bit beyond the capability of most networks.

However, we can expect to see that kind of functionality becoming available to a general market in the next few years. What's more, trends that exist today are laying the groundwork for a dramatic redefinition of what it means to be "at work."

Born of Frustration

One key development track leading us toward what might be called the "virtual office" began more than 25 years ago, reputedly in a Los Angeles traffic jam. In that legendary traffic snarl, Jack Nilles, a rocket scientist working in California for agencies on the East Coast, invented a term -- "telecommuting." Since then, Nilles and others have researched and evangelized the concept of telecommuting and "telework," and the idea has definitely caught on.

According to a survey conducted by Cyber Dialogue, a New York-based research and consulting firm, 15.7 million Americans were telecommuting in mid-1998. For the purposes of the study, telecommuting was defined as "working at home for an outside employer during normal business hours a minimum of one day/month."

"The findings indicate that telework is a very dynamic trend closely related to the level of employment in the economy and the growing impact of computers and the Internet," said Thomas E. Miller, vice president of Cyber Dialogue.

A 1997 study by Miller indicated that 11.1 million people were telecommuting in that year, a 15 percent increase over a study done two years earlier.

"Many companies, both large and small, have discovered the benefits of allowing employees to work from home part of the time," Miller said at the time. "Growth of e-mail, voice-mail and the Internet, combined with a renewed emphasis on work results rather than workplace appearances, have encouraged managers to recognize that employees working part time down the road are no more distant than employees working down the hall. What matters most is whether or not the job is getting done."

Given a continuation of today's economic circumstances, Miller expects that telecommuting may grow to 18 million by the year 2000. While other studies have shown different numbers, they 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
David Aden
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.