In which our intrepid social commentator boils down all the challenges facing our great nation into a relative handful of simple—but not simplistic—solutions.
STEP FIVE: TELECOMMUTING
Let’s say you were running a company and you wanted to keep your employees motivated–assuming you still had any employees–but cash wasn’t exactly plentiful. How would you give workers an extra $1,000 per year, along with six more weeks of vacation, without spending a dime?
In an information-based society, millions of jobs can be moved from the office building to the family room with no loss of productivity. Whether it’s writing, customer service calls, research, marketing or dozens of other business tasks, the location of the phone, fax and keyboard make little difference.
Telecommuting, however, offers a great benefit to all.
First, let’s consider the employee who commutes an hour each day—30 minutes each way—and pays $5 per day for a bus ride. Over a year (50 weeks plus vacation) that person will spend 250 unproductive hours going to and from the office and spend $1,250 (after taxes) for the privilege of commuting. In a big city, bump that up to two hours per day and $35 with parking for a total of 500 hours per year and $8,750 out of pocket.
Shorten the commute to 50 feet, from the bedroom to the den, and give the worker an extra 6-12 work weeks of free time. Put $8,000 back in their pockets, after tax, and it’s the equivalent of a $12,000 raise.
For the employer, telecommuting reduces office space requirements, makes the company more attractive to applicants and builds reputation. There’s little added cost when doing work from home, as cable modems and phone lines often include flat rates for essentially unlimited service. Consumers also avoid some of the charges added to business accounts, which can reduce total costs even when home service is partly subsidized by the company.
For societal benefits, where do we begin? Fewer commuters mean fewer cars on the road, a smaller carbon footprint and fewer hours wasted in traffic. When the roads are emptier, commercial vehicles can meet their schedules more consistently, reducing costs for carriers, shippers and the economy as a whole. The trade deficit drops with oil imports and we can stop financing Osama’s family.
Speaking of families, people working at home can coordinate schedules and child care better in two-income households, so absenteeism can be reduced.
Yes, there will be casualties. Commercial office buildings and restaurants in business centers will see some decline. Restaurants near residential areas might see an increase. Communications services providers might see heavier use by consumers who telecommute and lose some revenue from businesses that off-source the work.
Overall, though, the benefits are huge, so huge that it can be confounding that the pace of workplace distribution hasn’t been much faster.
As is often the case when dealing with people, inertia is the culprit.
Business practice evolved from work done at home to work done in factories, to centralized office environments, and that’s just the way things are.
Telecommuting is vastly overdue, even if there are some risks. When employers can sweeten their total compensation packages by $1,000-10,000 and 500-1,000 hours for each telecommuting employee, the whole concept looks like a risk worth taking.