PhotoLet's face it -- for a lot of people, getting to and from work is the worst part of their day.

And, with a new report detailing the growing cost of daily commuting, one workplace authority wonders if it is time for the nation’s employers to make a serious commitment to expanding the use of telecommuting strategies.

“Right now, a very small fraction of the nation’s workers who could viably work from home on a regular basis are actually doing so,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “By not expanding the use of telecommuting, employers are negatively impacting the environment, worker productivity, job satisfaction and, most importantly, their bottom lines. And, it is not a lack of technology or other resources that is holding back this expansion. It is simply a lack of vision, a shortage of trust and an irrational adherence to antiquated notions of how and where work should be done.”

Commuting times get longer

The call for increased telecommuting comes on the heels of a new report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which revealed that increased traffic congestion is forcing the nation’s workers to build in extra time to their daily commutes to the tune of $121 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2011.

The longest commuting times are found in Washington, DC, where it takes drivers three hours to reach a destination that would be 30 minutes away with no traffic. On average, commuters are giving themselves one hour for what should be a 20-minute drive with no traffic.

“The impact of these monster commutes on the workplace is enormous,” said Challenger. “Workers who do not build in enough commuting time are likely to be late or may simply decide to take a personal day. Those who leave at the crack of dawn simply to arrive at a normal starting time of 8am or 9am are probably fatigued and not in a very good mood. The end result is a workforce that is late, absent, and/or performing well below their potential,”

Growth of telecommuting

Obviously, there are many occupations that are not conducive to telecommuting. However, the number of jobs that can be done remotely have grown significantly over the last two decades and will continue to expand going forward.

The latest available statistics from the Telework Research Network indicate that 3.1 million people -- not including the self-employed or unpaid volunteers -- considered home to be their primary place of work in 2011. That is roughly 2.5 percent of U.S. nonfarm payrolls.

Overall, the number of telecommuters increased by 73 percent between 2005 and 2011. However, according to the data, the number of telecommuters remains well below the potential. The Telework Research Network estimates that as many as 64 million U.S. employees (just under 50 percent of the workforce) hold a job that is compatible with telework.

What's the problem?

So, what is keeping telecommuting from growing? It is not resistance from workers. Nearly 80 percent of Americans polled in a 2009 survey said they would like to work from home.

If there is any resistance from employees, it is most likely related to how increased telecommuting might impact their status in the office, according to Challenger. “There is a perception that if you are not in the office, you are more likely to miss important meetings, get passed over for promotion or get targeted for layoff in the event of a downsizing. These are not irrational concerns, by any means, as these are the subtle, and sometimes overt, messages that get passed on to workers from management.”

He points out that companies are embracing the latest portable tablets and laptops, social networking, video conferencing and many of the other technological advancements that make telecommuting increasingly viable. However, he notes, in many ways, companies are stuck in the old way of doing business, where people are expected to work from 9 to 5 and are judged more on the amount of ‘face time’ than on the quantity or quality of output .

Companies that have embraced telecommuting have found that their remote workers are just as, if not more productive than traditional office workers. Analyses of Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical and many other employers have found that teleworkers are 35 percent to 45 percent more productive. American Express found that its teleworkers produced 43 percent more than their office-based counterparts.

Benefits to employees

In addition, various studies have found that telecommuting employees are happier, more loyal and have fewer unscheduled absences.

“All of these outcomes positively impact the bottom line,” said Challenger. “However, they represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corporate finances. Companies that have widely adopted telecommuting are realizing significant savings in many areas but, most notably, real estate costs.”

In a 2008 Workforce Management article, a Sun Microsystems spokesman said the company had realized “huge cost savings,” as a result of the 18,000 workers participating in its telecommuting initiatives. According to the article, the San Francisco-based technology company saved $67.8 million in real estate costs in fiscal 2006 alone.

Challenger says the benefits of increased telecommuting extend beyond individual companies. “The positive effects on the environment alone should make telecommuting a higher priority,” he contends. “Not only would it reduce greenhouse gases, but it would greatly reduce our dependency on foreign oil. There really are not many negatives related to increased telecommuting other than imagined ones.”  

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