Telecommuting, and what 'Carmageddon' taught us about mobile work

With all the traffic stress around us, why isn't there more telecommuting? The fact is whether we realize it or not, many of us are already 'telecommuting' -- working off-location with mobile devices.

" Carmaggeddon ," in which the I-405 freeway -- the main artery in and out of Los Angeles -- was recently closed for overhauls, giving rise to predictions of gridlock in the nation's most car-dependent urban area. Fortunately, there was a lot preparation and information before the closure, so things went off with minimal disruption. However, the whole episode again leads one to wonder: why aren't more people telecommuting?  We have the technology, and no one seems to enjoy traffic-choked hour-long commutes.

Well, the truth is that with mobile technologies, many employees and managers are already telecommuting in one form or another -- they just don't call it "telecommuting."

Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, an employer-employee telecommuting matching service, has a few things to say about this as well as broader observations on telecommuting trends.  She recently shared her insights with me on the role telecommuting plays in most companies -- whether they call it 'telecommuting' or something else.

Q: What did "Carmageddon" tell us about the need to more actively promote telecommuting?

Sara Sutton Fell: Carmageddon highlighted our perceived reliance on roads to get things done, which is in many ways ridiculous with all of the technology we have at our hands for mobility.  Most people can -– and already do –- work from their work laptops, home computers, smartphones, or tablets to some degree.  Yet they don’t consider it 'telecommuting.' Perhaps because it’s spontaneous and not arranged?

Having said that, the simple facts are that if people telecommuted one day a week, there could be a 20 percent reduction in commuter traffic. Which could also translate into a 20 percent reduction in commuter-related gas consumption and pollution.  Which could also mean a 20 percent reduction in commuter-hour accidents and a 20 percent reduction in the commuter-related wear and tear on our roads and cars.  Not to mention a 20 percent savings on your weekly time spent commuting that could be more time with your family or friends, exercising, getting through your personal to-do lists, and otherwise reducing your stress-level and enjoying life.

Q: Why do some employers resist the concept of telecommuting?

Fell: First, there are historical stigmas that some employers still associate telecommuting, such as that it is just a benefit for employees, so they can sit at home watching soaps and eating bon-bons, or that if their boss can’t see them employees won’t actually work.  Second, employers tend to see telecommuting as a black and white issue -– that you either offer it or you don’t.  But there are many shades of gray to telecommuting and different levels of telecommuting that work for different companies or jobs.

Q: How can this thinking be changed?

Fell: It’s about awareness and need.  We need to enlighten employers that whether they realize it or not, we are already a highly mobile workforce, with most people doing some level of their work away from the desk in their office building.  It’s about educating people that mobility and telecommuting are actually the same, and they can be a huge complement to employers’ goals of productivity and revenue, instead of a threat. And in regards to need, important issues that can negatively affect their companies and their employees, such as high gas prices, pandemics, dangerous weather, and flu season, among others, are ways for the company to protect themselves against reduced productivity as circumstances shift.

Q: What's the best "selling point" for promoting telecommuting to organizations, then?

Fell: The best selling point for most employers to embrace telecommuting is the financial benefit.  This can be broken down into both short and long-term benefits. For example, the more immediate benefit in a reduction in office space overhead versus the ongoing benefit of increased productivity of the workers.  The ongoing benefits are the most compelling, in my mind, because there are just so many – better work-life balance for the workers by saving time on commutes, being able to work at the time of the day that is most productive for them, more flexibility to juggle other areas of their lives such as family, just to name a few – all of which will ultimately benefit the employer in terms of higher employee retention, happier and less stressed workers, and increased productivity.

Q: Are telecommuting arrangements most often instigated by the employee or the employer?

Fell: Both, but from our perspective we see more companies embracing a virtual or flexible component to their corporate culture and therefore instigating the telecommuting arrangements.  Having said that, the demand is very apparent there from the employee side as well, as evidenced in study after study.

Q: Are employers more overtly advertising telecommuting options in their listings?

Fell: Yes, we have seen an increase in employers’ comfort level with providing telecommuting options, as well we should!  The simple fact is that mobility is with us in virtually every industry, and people are telecommuting in every industry, even if they and their employer aren’t aware of it.  People check email from their home computers, smart phones, iPads over the weekend, during their commute, and on vacations.  The mass majority of people do not work exclusively at their desk in the office anymore, which means that they are working remotely to some degree!   The perception and the reality of how much people telecommute is really out of sync right now.

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