What if more Americans worked from home?

What if more Americans worked from home?

Summary: This article, the second in the series, looks at policy questions, and explores what might have to change in our policy discussions to encourage more telecommuting.

TOPICS: Telework

How To Save Jobs (free download). I used that research as the foundation for the article, The enormous societal benefits of working from home.

This article, the second in the series, looks at policy questions and explores what might have to change in our policy discussions to encourage more telecommuting.

(Image: Library of Congress)

Clearly, if more Americans worked from home, it could be very, very good for America:

  • We'd reduce our reliance on foreign oil

  • We'd reduce pollution

  • We'd reduce global warming

  • We'd regain billions of hours of productivity and family time

  • We'd save a ton of money

  • We'd reduce our costs for road construction and highway maintenance

  • We'd even probably reduce the number of latch-key kids

That's why it's so unfortunate that the IRS seems to distrust some home-based businesses, home offices, and people working from home. According to BusinessWeek:

The home office deduction acts as something of a red flag to the Internal Revenue Service because it can easily be abused by small business owners who claim a larger home office than they actually have, or who deduct expenses for an office that is not truly dedicated to business use.

Instead of using a home office as a red flag, US tax policy needs to encourage working from home. Part of the problem is that deducting a home office is a complex process. One way to encourage working from home is to establish a standard home office deduction that can simply be checked off as part of the tax preparation process. This would still allow for itemizing more complex home office expenses, but makes it easier for most home workers.

I spoke to Kristie Arslan of the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE), and asked her if they'd considered a policy for this. She told me:

The NASE believes that the home office deduction must be simplified and expanded to allow home-based businesses to easily utilize this tax benefit. We support the creation of a standard deduction option within the range of $1,500 to $2,000. Home-based entrepreneurs qualifying for the deduction could choose between selecting the simple, standard deduction, or itemizing if they feel they would receive a larger tax benefit.

I'd actually recommend going further than this. Rather than providing a relatively minor standard deduction — which, admittedly, would reduce audit risk — I'd like to see an aggressive program that actively encouraged working from home, perhaps in the form of a tax credit.

So many of our nation's mission-critical challenges could benefit if millions of Americans transitioned from commuting to working from home. I'd like to see a program that provided a credit for the number of days worked from home, or some other metric that was both easy to calculate and a strong incentive.

Perhaps this could be extended to employers as well, with deductions or credits that encouraged employers to encourage employees to work from home — as long as those homes are in the United States, of course.

But there's more to this than just tax policy. As with other aspects of changing how we function as a nation, our perception of ourselves has to change as well.

Changing hearts and minds

During World War II and after the Great Depression, the United States government set out on what, today, we'd almost call a propaganda campaign. The government's campaign was designed to educate Americans on values that would be helpful in a recovery. Yes, I know. If we did that today, certain pundits would have a coronary. But we're talking history here.

As part of the New Deal, President Franklin D Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Although not without its critics at the time, the WPA was considered to be the nation's largest employer and helped drive recovery from the Great Depression. One of the more interesting and enduring aspects of the WPA was its employment of artists and other creative people.

Early on, the WPA employed mostly construction workers and traditional tradesmen. But, according to Margaret Bing, curator of the Bienes Center for the Literary Arts, "Federal Project No. 1 of the Works Progress Administration was developed to give artistic and professional work to the unemployed who qualified".

According to Bing (the arts curator, not the search engine):

Federal Art Project (FAP) began as a part of Federal One with Holger Cahill as its director. By March of 1936, regional field offices were established throughout the country, employing as many as 6,000 people. Fifty percent of the FAP workers were directly engaged in creating works of art, while 10 to 25 percent worked in art education; the rest worked in art research.

By 1938, 42,000 easel paintings and 1,100 murals in public buildings were commissioned. Large numbers of sculptures, silk-screen prints, posters, and other graphic works were also made, and the FAP frequently worked in cooperation with the Federal Writers' Project to design covers and illustrations for its publications.

Many of these images were used to communicate values and messages, like the wonderful images shown at the beginning of this article.

If you look carefully, you might notice one poster that's particularly familiar. Have you noticed it? It's the one on the upper right with the caption "Work With Care". According to the United States Library of Congress WPA Poster Collection, this particular WPA poster was created in 1936 or 1937 in Pennsylvania by an artist named Robert Muchley.

How To Save Jobs
(Image: David Gewirtz)

The art from Mr Muchley's poster is also the cover illustration for How To Save Jobs (from which this article is derived), and the image was chosen for a reason. I believe that if we're going to transform our approach to jobs in America, the motivations can't just be the result of legislative changes or come from simply hacking our tax policy.

Instead, I believe we have to change how we think about jobs and some of our core values here in America. For example, instead of discouraging home workers, we need to change our value system so we celebrate home workers, because each person who works from home is someone who's helping to save our resources, our roads, our air, and possibly the planet itself.

As you think about teleworking and working from home, think about ways in which our relationship to employment and income production needs to change. Whether or not we can save jobs in America may well depend on changes not only in policy, but in attitude.

Healthy bicycle commuters

While I was writing this chapter, one of my Twitter followers pointed out that not all commuters drive cars. He asked: what about people who ride bicycles to work? According to a Portland State University study, about 1 percent of commuters ride a bike to work. While those 1.6 million commuters are certainly fitter than the rest of us, they're already part of the solution. Bike commuters (and those who walk to work) don't pollute — and the natural cardio exercise of their commute often makes them healthier than the rest of us.

Stay tuned. More tomorrow about the challenges of managing all this.

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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  • Where is the Enabling Technology?

    Unless the US government develops a program to encourage the building of Gigabit FTTP fibre-optic networks, working form home will remain a pipe dream for many people.

    The aging HFC cable technology is not up to the job.
  • Kids

    Anyone who claims to be able to watch the kids and work productively from home concurrently probably doesn't have kids. You are _either_ babysitting or working effectively, not both. Its a great pipe dream.
    • Kids

      Why kids need to be constantly baby-sited? They can do their own things and entertain themselves without constant intervention of parents.
    • Depends on the age of the kids...

  • do we know what percentage of jobs is telecommutable?

    It seems that ZDNet writers do not notice the real world we live in.
    In this real world the roads are constructed, the fields are tended, the plumbing is fixed, and hospitals treat patients.
    I am not sure there is even a reason for this whole discussion.
  • You do realize that

    The statements on increasing productivity, while increasing family time and eliminating latchkey kids are contradictory, right? Unless you've found some magical way to parent at the same time you are working on theses report.

    But, then again, you think global warming is real despite being shown incontrovertible evidence of deliberate manipulation of climate data. So it's obvious you just believe whatever you want to and hang reality.
  • Beware

    It is becoming apparant that comments questioning the content of this article series are being censored as profanity without any grounding in fact.

    Good luck all.

    There is little sense in writing if you cannot post it after you have made the effort.

    It is very interesting and telling though...
  • Tax Breaks

    I think that is EXACTLY what we need, more deductions or tax credits. Lets no simplify the code, lets make it more complex. I understand you are trying to make the deduction simpler, but I really see no reason for it. Just another pointless deduction/credit, such as the mortgage, child credit, college credit, etc.

    Just my .02.
  • Just a thought...

    ... if telecommuting is thought to be such a good thing, then at what point will a company say "what's the benefit in hiring a guy who lives 30 miles away when I can get the same work out of someone who's 3000 miles away for less?"

    If you don't think that's an issue, just note that the studio that did the SFX for "Life of Pi" is going under, being bought by a company overseas...
    • Right on!

      Once you have employees using the Internet to do their work, the distance from company offices becomes immaterial. Only the quality of work has importance.
  • I can just imagine people visiting this hypothetical company

    "Where is everyone?"

    "Oh they're all at home."


    "We use telecommuting workers. What, you think people are meant to work here? This office is just for show."
  • Solution!

    The whole issue of employees working at home is to have them receive compensation for setting up a home office to work from home based upon the companies space needs that they proved those working at the company's location and would be fully deductible from on the companies income tax.

    This would separate those working for a company/corporation at their residence from those home based businesses who determine their own space needs.
  • The benefits from working at the office or job site, are many times bigger

    to the economy and to the country as a whole, and especially to everyone in the country.

    What I posted a couple of weeks ago, is still true, and no matter how much one spins the telecommuting issue, the bigger benefits to the economy and to people, come from "going" to work outside the home.

    So, I'll just re-post my comments from the earlier article by Mr Gewirtz:

    When one looks at one side of the story, and doesn't look at the negatives, then, of course, the benefits will seem great.

    But, there are benefits from the other side of the equation, when those telecommuters become commuters.

    If it is true that people will be spending that huge amount of money on gasoline per year, in the range of 250 to 300 billion dollars, then, consider that, that is a huge impact on the economy, which means that, that is many times the stimulus money that Obama tried to impose on the people with his porkulus program a few years ago. Those $300 billion over 10 years equals $3 trillion dollars, which alone is enough to stimulate the economy towards a fantastic recovery. That creates the need for more supporting infrastructure, with more gas stations and coffee/donut shops and restaurants where people can have lunch and dinner and "happy hours". That additional spending could easily bring the yearly spending to 1 trillion dollars per year, which means $10 trillion dollars over 10 years. All of the new spending would create many millions of new jobs, and no doubt, many new companies. With new companies and million of new jobs, the government itself would reap huge rewards, with a bigger tax base, which would assist towards bringing down the budget deficits and the national debt.

    Excepting for those that would be lost because they can only work from home, the net benefit to the economy would be a huge plus.
  • The same jobs can be offshored to workers making a nickel per hour...

    think of the profit!

    At least until the system destabilizes, so just print out more federal money we taxpayers ultimately have to pay... holy legalized theft batman... and talk about "government intervention in a free market" - even I have to side with Romney on this; let them all go under. They made the mess that trashed everything, so we shouldn't have to pay for it.