The enormous societal benefits of working from home

The enormous societal benefits of working from home

Summary: There are enormous societal benefits to working from home, but no one is really aware of them. We can save up to 60.5 billion gallons of gas and 36.9 billion wasted hours each year if we work from home.

TOPICS: Telework

There's been a lot of discussion lately about Yahoo's decision to require its workers to stop working from home. Given that our industry in particular has embraced telecommuting, there's been a considerable outcry.

How To Save Jobs
(Image: David Gewirtz)

Back in 2009 and 2010, I spent a tremendous amount of time researching work patterns and society, which resulted in the book How To Save Jobs (free download). As part of my recommendations for saving American jobs, I looked at the issues and benefits of working from home. This article is the first of a series derived from that research. The subsequent articles will be posted next week.

Working green by working from home

There are enormous societal benefits to working from home, but no one is really aware of them. Working from home is ultimately green.

According to an ABC News/Washington Post/Time Magazine poll taken in 2005, "220 million adults average an hour and a half a day in their cars". 60 percent admit to driving "well over the speed limit"; 62 percent say they get frustrated from time-to-time; 40 percent claim they get angry; and 20 percent admit that they sometimes "boil into road rage".

That's 44 million people experiencing road rage. That's a lot of boil. In fact, 41 percent report seeing road rage, and 54 percent claim they "often see other drivers making angry or impolite gestures".

I used to commute from Berkeley to Mountain View across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, California. If driven at 3am, it would take only 45 minutes. But during rush hour, my commute took me more than two hours each way. I only lasted five months with that commute, and then I moved closer to work. My new commute was only a 50 minute bumper-to-bumper drive, each way.

The ABC poll shows that most workers' commute times can vary from day-to-day by as much as 27 minutes each way — with a good trip to work taking an average of 19 minutes and a traffic-filled trip taking as long as 46 minutes. ABC said the average is 52 minutes on the road commuting, overall, over an average round trip distance of 32 miles.

A 2007 Gallup poll reflects some of the ABC News numbers. According to Gallup, workers spend an average of 46 minutes commuting round trip, with 85 percent driving themselves, 6 percent riding with someone else, 4 percent taking mass transit, and 3 percent walking.

If the average commuter takes 52 minutes to go 32 miles, that means the average commuter is driving at 37 miles an hour. Obviously, drivers go slower getting to and from the highway, and start and stop traffic takes longer than cruising at highway speeds, but let's just be simple and work with 37 miles an hour.

According to a 2007 United States Census report, 77 percent of American workers drive themselves to work alone. So let's work with that. As I discussed elsewhere in the book, there are roughly 234 million Americans in the civilian, non-institutional population. Let's drop out the 20 million or so we know who are not working right now, which leaves us with 214 million Americans.

214 million American commuters

That gives us about 164 million Americans who drive themselves to and from work. Multiplying 164 million by the average daily trip distance of 32 miles, we get 5,248,000,000 miles driven by American commuters each day. If the zeroes are getting to you, that's 5.2 billion miles driven each day.

Are you sitting down? That's 1.9 trillion miles driven by American commuters each year.

Now let's have some fun. Just how much fuel are we consuming by commuting? This is not an easy number to come by, so we'll be conservative again, in order to present the best-case scenario. Newer cars get better gas mileage, so let's just assume everyone's driving a 2009 or later model-year vehicle.

According to the US Department of Energy, the most fuel-efficient regular ol' gasoline vehicles were teeny-weeny two-seaters, which averaged 33 miles-per-gallon in the city and 41 on the highway. Of the 16 cars rated as most fuel efficient, the worst of these most fuel efficient rated 18 miles-per-gallon in the city and 27 on the highway.

We all know that your fuel economy is better on the highway and worse in city. And we also know our average driver is driving at 37 miles an hour, so we'll just take the highway and city miles-per-gallon numbers and average them.

So, just for the sake of our quick analysis, let's assume that the average driver gets about 22.5 miles-per-gallon commuting to work, which fits the mileage for an average American commuter vehicle.

Remember our 1.9 trillion commuter miles driven each year? If we divide that by 22.5 miles-per-gallon, we'll discover that American commuters use about 85 billion gallons of gasoline each year.

85 billion gallons

Gasoline prices have been all over the map, but let's just say that gas is a low $3 per gallon. That means American commuters spend about $255 billion per year just to commute to work.

I found it somewhat difficult to find average carbon footprint measurements for all these commuters, so I took the easy way out and used the "carbon footprint calculator" at, a tool created by Dr Karl Ulrich of the University of Pennsylvania. It's not an official, unimpeachable source, but it's probably good enough for some rough estimates.

According to the TerraPass calculator, our average commuter generates 7,114 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, simply driving to and from work. Calculated out nationally, that's 1,166,696,000,000 (1.16 trillion) pounds of carbon dioxide generated each year simply by commuting Americans, just during their commutes.

Let's recap some of our numbers. First, let's look at individual commuters:

  • 52 minutes commuting each day, for about 225 hours a year (that's almost six full, 40-hour work weeks, just commuting)

  • 32 miles round trip, for about 8,320 miles driven a year

  • 22.5 miles per gallon, for about 369 gallons of gas consumed per year

  • $3 per gallon, for about $1,109 spent per person commuting, and

  • 7,114 pounds of carbon dioxide released each year commuting.

Now let's look at this across America, for a full year.

  • Americans spend 36.9 billion hours a year commuting

  • Americans drive 1.9 trillion miles commuting each year

  • Americans spend $255 billion just for the gasoline to commute

  • Americans consume 60.5 billion gallons of gasoline (the capacity of 1,298 Exxon Valdez tankers, fully loaded) each year to commute

  • Americans release 1.16 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide into the air while commuting.

Remember, that's a conservative estimate; it doesn't include how much of our taxes goes to road maintenance, how much we spend on cars, how many cars become scrap material, the cost of day care for working parents, and on and on and on.

Update: This is only one of a series of articles, but to answer the question posed by commenters below, and articulated perfectly by my colleague Steven Cherry, not all "cops, bartenders, assembly line workers, crop pickers, insurance adjusters" can work from home. But as commenter @Jeff_D_Programmer said below, even if only 3 percent work from home, there will be enormous benefits.

By the way, if you want to see where this data came from, here's a comprehensive list of my research resources.

Stay tuned. Next week, I'll discuss the benefits to the American economy if more Americans worked from home.

Related articles

Topic: Telework


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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    I worked in the tech industry for many years and the majority of the people that worked from home were the biggest slackers.

    Yahoo's CEO just demonstrated that by checking the VPN logs for remote employees. She found that they were too lazy to even log into the network most of the time. So the 64-thousand dollar question is: "If you didn't log into the corporate network, how is it even remotely possible (pun intended) the these employees were working?"

    The answer is simple... most were not. It was an unwritten rule in tech that "work from home" really means watching talk shows, eating junk food, surfing the web, and scores of other non-work related activities.
    • Not necessarily true

      I've worked from home for well over 30 years, and if I spent all my time doing as you say, I would have nothing to show for it. Wouldn't you think that they wouldn't even have to check the VPN logs? The slacker you describe would show no work product. In my company he'd be out the door after the first month. I detect a bit of resentment in your tone. Would you like to be telecommuting yourself?

      I also think there's a bit of hypocrisy in Mayer's actions. She'll bring her baby to work and be with the child throughout the day. Can all her female employees with preschool children do the same? Does SHE wish she could be telecommuting? (obviously not an option for the CEO!)

      I would hope that in one of his future installments David will touch on how telecommuting affects young families. I was there for my children as they grew, and now my six month old granddaughter will reap the same benefits because my daughter now works for us and does a lot of telecommuting!

      I think that's really the greatest societal benefit to telecommuting. Its affect cannot be overstated. Well through the mid 20th century there was always one parent (albeit always the wife) at home for the children. Nowadays both parents are obliged to work in most families, and our culture has suffered because of it. Telecommuting is the 21st century answer to this problem. We should embrace it wherever we can!
    • based only on VPN usage? a poor metric

      I'm a home worker. Subjectively 90% of my work communication is via email and 10% phone. When I did work in the office, 90% was still email, 5% phone and 5% in-person. Until a couple months ago, I didn't even have VPN access to corporate networks because almost everything is cloud based. I use the VPN only on rare occasions.

      Excuse me, but I am NOT a slacker. but it looks like your ideas about how the tech industry can operate are a bit dated.
      Jim Johnson
    • Get Real!

      For orandy:

      Maybe YOU have had this experience, or maybe you know people like this, but I have had several jobs in IT, where the entire time I worked for the company, I worked from home. We ALL did. No one checked any logs, no one required start/stop emails. We worked on our integrity and our reputations. There was NO unwritten rule that you speak of. Don't do the work, you won't have a job.

      Maybe Yahoo's CEO should hammer that point home. The people who really want jobs, and are worthwhile workers, usually work MORE from home than in the office.
    • Working from home with accountability

      I think there's not enough accountability at this point with at-home employees. I'd assume that one day there will be procedures and technology in place that could make the idea of working at home both an accountable practice as well as a culturally beneficial one. With this accountability, I'd conclude that there would be a mental aspect to working at home that could be instilled into the work ethic of those employees. But, again, this is all just my opinion on the subject.
    • She's just pruning the labor force

      Without having to actually fire people.

      It's a very smart move and once the pruning is done remote working will be available again. So, let's not get too ahead of ourselves with these wild conclusions.
      • Yahoo is doomed

        because the most dedicated, smartest, responsible workers are going to leave that sinking ship. People who work from home have to WANT to work, without having the boss breathing down their necks. Most information workers who can work from home should do so, because it saves the business money and is good for the environment and therefore good for all of society.

      Not everybody working from home uses their VPN 24/7.

      What about the coders that do everything localy on their machines, or others who use their web based email client, and the telephone to get their jobs done?
      William Farrel
      • Except that the Source Control would require VPN usage

        Check in, check out, synchronize the working directory, check revision histories - ALL these things would require network access. And lets not forget that our Maven nexus server is on the other side of the VPN too, along with our Jenkins build servers.

        Personally, speaking as a coder, I *do* maintain a constant VPN connection for these reasons, even when working locally on my home machine.
        • Sounds like

          You don't know how to use source control
          • And you'd be wrong.

            Thanks for playing.
    • The issue at Yahoo (and everywhere) is culture

      A culture has developed at Yahoo that attracts poor performers. Of course, that then frustrates the high performers they have and probably casuses a lot of them to leave. The new CEO is using this approach to change the culture. I'll bet once the culture is where it should be, the work from home policies change again. It's all about attracting people who want to work hard and perform, not slack off. Culture is as much an attraction for that as anything else. At my company and in my department, we have a significant work remote contingent. But, we have people who agree with the culture that promotes results, teamwork and respect. Consequently, we have some really high performers that work some of the time remotely.

      Personally, I think remote work is a good thing AND I applaud Ms. Mayer.
    • I want your job

      I've worked from home on assignments and aside from more comfortable clothes and not having to wear a headset to hear my music, I still have to get my work done. I guess that's the difference between a slacker and a professional.
    • Get Real?

      If workers are slacking, chances are they can slack at the office just about as well as at home. How does management determine if workers are productive? Doesn't it make sense that if someone is slacking, the productivity that a manager would normally expect to see would not be there? And if it's not there, why isn't there a 1:1 conversation about expectations with that employee? There's no excuse for a teleworker to be left unsupervised and unmonitored. Whether a person sits in an office or not has nothing to do with that. If a person's productivity can't be measured, do you need that person at all?

      Some jobs need a physical presence. Some do not. Saying someone needs to be physically present when their work really doesn't require it, just because MANAGEMENT doesn't know how to monitor and measure productivity without seeing someone sitting at a desk, is saying there's something else that's wrong. The problem isn't the telecommuting.
    • Working from home

      Providing the infrastructure is in place working from home can not only benefit the individual but also the corporate.
      I helped to introduce home working and hot desking into BTCellnet over 10 years ago and then it save us over ten million pounds ( $20,000,000 - then 8-] ) a year on office space.
      Managers gave home workers deliverables to ensure that they met their targets but most of the people increased their productivity by a minimum of 30%.
      The biggest problem we found was those bad mouthing home workers with comments like 'work from home' really means watching talk shows, eating junk food, surfing the web, and scores of other non-work related activities.
      Now as O2 home working is the accepted norm.........
    • Get a grip...

      What nonsense! I am an academic who is currently on a 3-year research project. This means no teaching or admin duties. I don't really need to be on campus unless I have set up meetings or if I want to attend some talk/ lecture or the other. So, I work from home on at least 3 of the 5 days of a working week. During this time, I usually don't access the university's VPN. I don't need to. The only time I do is if I want to access my files which are on the University's network and/ or the library. Does this mean I am slacking? It certainly does not! VPN logs, effectively, mean nothing unless the work you are doing requires you to be on the VPN.
    • Good for you, orandy

      These fat slobs need to get off their fat_a$$es and come in to work. Otherwise they'll be sitting around eating cheetos and watching the boob tube all day.
  • I see a couple problems with your math...

    1. At best, only about 25% of jobs can be done "At Home" which means 75% of the work force can't telecommute. Period.
    2. Now factor in that 40% of the remaining people don't have a net connection that works both fast and stable enough for them to be able to work from home and we're down to only 15% of the workforce that are even able to work from home.
    2. Next, factor in the typical home-life settings: distractive, disruptive and over-all NOT condusive to accomplishing work related tasks. This brings the amount of the workforce that can effectively work from home down to about 3% of the workforce. This being a capitalist nation, those persons who cannot accomplish their duties from home must, therefore, go to the office or the unemployment line.

    So, rather than assume we can have all 164 million commuters stop "going" to work, and let's use our realistically adjusted number of 4.92 million that can actually stop commuting. Just how much benefit is it to have 3% of the commuters off the road? It saves us 2.55 billion gallons and we cut 35 billion lbs of carbon. Still nothing to be sneezed at, but to promote the idea that this change would effect the kind of eco-friendliness and "enormous social benefit" as promoted by this article is ludicrous.
    • Back up your numbers

      You include a slew of numbers in your post, but you have no actual third party data supporting them. Your entire post is all arbitrary assumptions based off of your own opinions. At least Gewirtz backs up his speculation with third party information, even if he inevitably has to average some of the data in order to come to his conclusions.
      • How about some BLS goodness

        The latest Civilian Labor Force number from the BLS for February 2013 is 155524000 (

        So we can see that the numbers in this article start off exaggerated and get worse from there.
        Ex: No factoring in public transportation.
        Robert Crocker