“Initiatives Such as Telecommuting”

Jim, over at Road to Ruin you have a post on Speaker Howell’s recent comments regarding transportation. The Speaker agrees that we can’t pave our way out of the transportation mess and any response must include mass transit and “initiatives such as telecommuting.”

I’m not sure what a telecommuting initiative would look like. One would think that if it were such a great idea, lots more people would be working from home and businesses would be encouraging it. Of course, maybe they are, but if so, a lot of them are working from cell phones in their car instead of from the comforts of home with their vehicle off the road. “Non-rush hour traffic” is an oxymoron.

If I was asked to design a telecommuting initative, I would start with state government. If state officials think telecommuting is a solution, they ought to lead the way.

In my agency, I count 19 of 41 employees based in Richmond who could easily work from home. That’s almost half–and more could if a few assumptions were changed. All of these employees have offices/cubicles of significant total size. Get them working from home and my agency could move to much smaller (hence cheaper) office space in addition to the hoped for reduction in traffic miles. I’m sure my agency is not unique. Spread this across the 100 or so state agencies and there could be significant savings. I’m told there are few impediments to switching phone lines to home phone numbers. Many of the staffers in my agency who could work from home already have state issued laptops. Employees could use their home computers or take the one they have in their state office.

What might be added to a telecommuting initiative such as I’m describing might be a voluntary commitment to reducing miles driven and commitments by the agency to hold required meetings at times that would keep employees off major commuting routes during off-peak hours. If the state demonstrated a commitment to telecommuting, maybe private business would follow.

I can anticipate a lot of the objections to my version of a telecommuting initiative. Of course, if someone had the will to make it happen, those objections could be overcome.

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11 responses to ““Initiatives Such as Telecommuting””

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    What is the status of video conferencing in state government these days? Four years ago in my old agency some were starting to use it for court hearings on prisoner lawsuits, and some other things, but it was barely crawling along. But when it worked it saved staff from hundreds of miles and many hours of travel. We didn’t have the technology in house but had to go to another location. The cost of equipment and connections internally was a hassle, and now with IT being centralized – can agencies do it themselves at all?

    My experience encouraging telecommuning that the problem with telecommuting is managers who are convinced that if the employees are not chained to a desk at the office they will be spending all their time goofing off, shopping on line, playing with the cat or blogging.

    Where the hell did they get that idea? Oops. There goes the phone.

  2. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    I know Jim has written about the use of teleconferencing by VDOT; I’m not sure how many other agencies use it. For offices with the majority of employees in one area, such as Richmond, a simple chat program could suffice for most group meetings.

    You are exactly right about the problem–managers wanting a staff at their beck and call. It doesn’t matter that they’re not really squeezing that much productivity out of those supposedly “chained” to the desk in the office–call a state office on Friday afternoon, or count the smoke breaks outside a state office. If one assumes the employee will use at least a portion of their former commuting time working in their pajamas at home but goof off at the same rate, the state still should come out ahead.

  3. Rtwng Extrmst Avatar
    Rtwng Extrmst

    God forbid that we would actually ask managers to… manage!

    Let’s not forget also that if even close to half of commuters could work at home as you suggest, where would be the need for after school child care, or what about Tim Kaine’s government pre-school initiative?? All those potential government programs would lose out, we can’t have that can we? Telecommute? Never!

  4. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    I work from home and travel a lot when I have go to meetings or work in more intense phases of projects. Mother Corporation saves thousands in overhead by not having real office space for me. I spend hours on telcons looking at the same slides on computers as others around the country. I’ve worked on my own like this for years. Productivity goes up tremendously because all the human interaction around the coffee room, which is good for man as a social animal, doesn’t happen and demand time. Work is work and I do my 80 hours every two weeks or more.

    The way it could work as a policy idea is to calculate a person commute day = $x. It may be pennies or dollars, I dunno. But, let corporations reduce their corporate taxes by x person commute days times the number of person-days telecommuting. It would not be an onerous burden of record keeping for corporations using time cards today.

    There will always be a management trade off on when you can do business virtual and when actual. Better managers will find the right balance and save the corporations money. Create a carrot.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    We have many employees in our agency that could work from home too. We’ve asked to do it but it’s the same in our office as some have already mentioned. Supervisors wouldn’t be able to walk by our door on the hour and see that we are still pounding away at the keyboard. Sometimes I feel like I’m at a daycare center! If my work is done well and on schedule, it shouldn’t matter where I’m physically located or what time of the day (or night) I get it done.

    Regrettably, there are some that would take advantage of the situation if allowed so managers will have to learn to measure work more effectively. Then again, these are the same people that are slacking right in front of the manager’s eyes so maybe it would force these folks to actually do something measurable.

    A note on the smokers comment… I smoke (egads!). I know, I know… it’s not a popular habit, calm down… Save the sermons! I won’t smoke around you! But don’t assume a loss of work just beacuse someone smokes… I work at home at night, both times I was sick, on vacation, on weekends, etc. No, I don’t get overtime! So don’t assume just because you see someone taking a few minutes to smoke a cigarette that they are not putting in their dues! Check the non-smokers that talk on the phone all day, do their personal business on state time, sleep, or just plain do nothing and I bet you find the real abuse. Smokers know they are watched more carefully because of our “sinful” habit so we are more careful not to waste time lollygagging about.

    Anyway, if we could work from home, we wouldn’t have to leave the desk to smoke now would we??? Another great reason to let us work from home!

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Telecommuting is not a popular option among the management at my agency. In fact, when I inquired about whether or not we had an official policy on it (who can, who can’t, and under what circumstances), I was met with blank stares. Not surprising, somehow.

    A cursory look at the DHRM website brings up DHRM Policy 1.61 (PDF).

    Unfortunately, my agency doesn’t have any sort of formal work agreement in place, so I may have to try to spearhead something… given the glacial pace of state governement, I may be close to retirement by the time anything chances (clarification: I’m no where near retirement age).

  7. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Anon 9:52, although it sounded like it, I was not singling out smokers. I know people who take “smoke breaks” but don’t even smoke … and non-smokers who go with smokers just to chat. Everybody takes breaks at any work location, state or otherwise, and some take more than others, state and otherwise. If you worked from home, you might smoke in front of your computer, perhaps increasing your productivity.

    The point is that if you work from home with measureable standards, breaks and all the rest don’t become an object of water cooler discussions.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Yeah, Will, but now this has become my water cooler.

    The DHRM policy linked above is illuminating and points out that a work from home program does raise issues of who provides the equipment, how it is serviced, OSHA workplace safety standards, liability issues (if a Fed Ex delivery woman slips and falls on your doorstep delivering work related material, is your employer liable?) None of these is impossible to overcome.

    Then there is the model I would push if I were back in a management position which is more flextime. Even if people spent one day every two weeks working from their home computer, in a place like Northern Virginia it might have a measurable impact. What about those days when you are waiting on a plumber.

    But a key point that got all this started — if we doubled or even tripled the examples of this, would it solve our transportation problem? No. Will we get to the place where we are all wired in at home? Actually, I hope not.

  9. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I strongly support telecommuting, and I did so for four years. Now I travel a lot, so I still do much of my work away from the office. Somehow, that form of telecommuting doesn’t strike me as doing much for our transportation problems.

    Anonymous 9:27 is right, we can do a lot more, but we shouldn’t expect too much. Entire sectors of the economy are not conducive: construction, retail, services, delivery, military, events, etc etc.

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar

    In response to Anonymous 9:27 and Ray Hyde, Even the most zealous promoters of telecommuting don’t see it as a cure-all. As with most proffered “solutions” to our transportation crisis, telecommuting will apply only to a select percentage of the population. There is no silver bullet. But, of all the potential solutions out there, it’s a pretty big one — second, in my judgment, only to land use reform. I think that we will see more and more “distributed work” (as opposed to telecommuting, or working only at home) as (a) the technology matures, (b) the changing nature of work makes it less and less essential for people to congregate in a central workplace, and (c) managerial philosophies catch up with
    the first two.

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar

    There are no silver bullets, and I think telecommuting is one of our most promising options.

    However, the first thing is we are going to have to pave over thirty years of anti-road objections to fix our current problems. If new telecommuting technology saves us 15% then we only have to pave over 25 years worth of anti-road sentiment.

    Then, after we solve our current problems we can start making long term land use decisions to make sure this doesn’t happen again. In fact, considering the probable time frame and low likliehood of land use policy having any effect we might as well start now. By the time we catch up on our current problems it might save another couple of per cent.

    A couple per cent of a billion a year is real money.

    Problem is, it is probably going to cost you that much in lawsuits.

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