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Monday, November 05, 2007

Get off that bus, into telework

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Hey, you, sitting there on your train or bus, have you had enough yet? Sick of this ritualistic dance about mass-transit "doomsday"? Fed up with the endless maneuvering over fares and taxes? Isn't there some "long-term" solution to this mess that would free us from this exhausting exercise? Yes, there is: telecommuting. And you should be demanding it. Now. When you're fed up.

The crux of the commuting problem is simple: too many people going to too many places. You can try to fix it by improving the means of getting there (e.g., more subsidies, higher taxes, more cars, more concrete) without surcease or effect. Or you can reduce the number of people who depend on 19th and 20th Century technology to get there.

Some think that the answer lies in fighting sprawl, but that's been a flop. Academics who continue to cram the idea of "controlled growth" on an unwilling public are as out of touch as disco. All that's accomplished by propping up a mass-transit system with ever-expanding bases of "assured funding" is agony over when we'll have to face the next transit doomsday.

Instead of chasing a utopian ideal by tossing more money and effort at increasing the supply of transit, the enduring solution is reducing the demand for it, whether it is mass or individual. Instead of concentrating on how to best move people, we should be focusing on how to best move information. Instead of fighting technology and its inevitable impact on society, we should be facilitating and promoting the societal change that already has begun.

Almost 4.2 million people worked at home in 2000, up from 3.4 million in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That 23 percent increase was double the growth in the overall work force during the decade. According to the International Telework Association and Council, the number of Americans who spent at least some portion of the week teleworking jumped from 19.7 million in 1999 to 28 million in 2001, up 42 percent in two years.

Sadly, the greatest resistance comes from the private sector, not government. Telework in the federal government grew 35 percent in 2006, compared with 10 percent in the private sector, according to a study by CDW Government Inc. consultancy. Forty-four percent of federal employees surveyed indicated they have the option to telework, up 6 percent from 2006, compared with 15 percent of private-sector employees. That's thanks to a federal law that gives eligible executive branch employees the option to telecommute "to the maximum extent possible" without damaging their performance evaluations.

No, I don't want a law forcing the private sector to do the same, although just mentioning it will make someone think it's a good idea. Stiff corporate lobbying would make passage of such a law nearly impossible; it'd be easier to educate corporate minds about the benefits, to them and their employees. Not the least of which is the increased ability to continue operations after a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Surveys also show that employees are happier telecommuting, if indeed, companies think having happy employees is a good idea. Other advantages, says the American Telecommuting Association, are improved productivity, information turnaround and communications; greater staffing flexibility; lower employee turnover; and access to a larger pool of potential employees. I'd throw in fewer of those annoying, unproductive, face-to-face meetings.

The challenge is to disabuse private employers of myths about telecommuting and their stubborn belief that if they can't see the workers, then the workers aren't working. Organized labor also resists, citing fears, among others, of overtime abuse and the difficulty of maintaining union cohesion. For companies and unions that absolutely insist on having their employees in a corral, subregional or neighborhood telecenters are an option. For example, instead of making south suburban employees travel to the big northwest suburban headquarters, a company might set up a center in Orland Park.

For society, the benefits are clear and abundant. Among them are reduced energy consumption and pollution, and greater opportunities for the physically impaired, at-home parents, the elderly, people living in remote areas and caretakers for the infirm.

No, I'm not declaring the end of offices and downtowns, or that trains, buses and highways can or should be ignored or eliminated. We'll always need them, and they need to operate as best as they can. But I'm betting that when it comes to investing, say, $1 billion in roads and transit, compared with $1 billion in telecommuting, there's no question of which will produce the greatest return for everyone.


Anonymous said...

Dennis, Dennis, Dennis! The Chicago and Sprinfield governments are corrupt! They couldn't care less about the average citizen. This is standard trickle-on of the Bush era or owning our government. Blame the citizens, let them figure out how to get around the rampant, institutionalized corruption and nepotism that encourages imcompetence on a never-before-experienced level. Want to see an improvement in public transportation? Take away the politicians' limos. Make them communte.

Diana Myers said...

The "too many people going too many places" whom you consider the clutter of public transportation include the staff at my doctor's group; the hygienist who cleans my teeth and the office worker who bills my insurance; servers who bring my food and bussers who clear my place; techs, office staff, and nursing assistants at my local hospital; home caregivers; daycare workers; maintenance staff in office buildings and desk and housekeeping staff in hotels. And more! You propose to get rid of the "exhausting exercise" of public transportation by turning in-office work into telecommuting. That's an option only if you have the kind of job that is not likely to burden you with the "exhausting exercise" of commuting by public transportation in the first place.

Terri F. said...

Though I am a left-leaning moderate who disagrees with your opinions from time-to-time, I am 100% in agreement with you on this one. I dabbled in telecommuting in the late '90s because I had an enlightened boss in the financial services sector who understood how much time I wasted traveling on I-294 for 40 miles to reach the office in Deerfield. I telecommuted two days a week and found it to be a wonderful experience. Now I am an at-home mom who would like to re-enter the work force next year when my youngest is in first grade and I would savor a job that allows me to work from home.

Anonymous said...

Telecommuting is all very nice for folks like yourself who are writers and/or consultants, but what about the people who actually build or manufacture things? You know, the people who actually work with their hands for a living?