Merging Home and Office

Telecommuting is a High-Tech Energy Saver

In what has to be considered a major change in American corporate life, more and more office workers are “commuting” in their bathrobes, moving from bedroom to home office to begin their work day. Telecommuting is a “no brainer,” right? How could it not be good that millions of Americans are leaving their gas guzzlers in the garage?

© Eric R. Berndt / Photo Network

But Northwestern University fellow James H. Snyder, who specializes in the impacts of new technology, cautions that the increase in stay-at-home workers could be an environmental disaster. “Telecommuting allows the population to sprawl further and further out from metropolitan areas,” Snyder says, “and that changes the shape of America.”

But most observers argue that sprawl would happen with or without telecommuting, and that the practice has many obvious environmental benefits. According to Telecommute America, if 10 percent of the workforce telecommuted once a week, we’d save more than 1.2 million gallons of fuel, resulting in 12,963 tons of avoided air pollution. Telecommuting also cuts down on the amount of useful land wasted on parking lots and parking garages.

One thing is certain: To reduce traffic congestion and overhead costs, and to improve productivity, more and more companies are adopting telecommuting as an alternative work plan. The federal government is providing a powerful incentive. In 1996, the Clean Air Act amendments were adopted with the expectation of reducing carbon dioxide and ground-level ozone levels by 25 percent. The amendments require companies with 100 or more employees to encourage car pools, the use of public transportation, condensed work weeks and…telecommuting. Corporate America got the message: Almost 11 million workers now telecommute at least one day a month, up from four million in 1990, according to a 1997 study conducted by the New York market research firm Find/SVP. Telecommuters average 19.3 hours of work at home per week, and earn an average salary of $51,000. “The 90s have been the telecommuting decade thus far,” says Joanne Pratt of FIND/SVP, noting that there will be an estimated 14 million telecommuters by the year 2000.

At AT&T, which enthusiastically encourages telecommuting, 22,500 workers telecommute regularly, and 76 percent say they accomplish more when they work at home. An AT&T survey says its typical telecommuter saves two gallons of gas, 43 pounds of pollutants and 41 miles of travel each day he or she works at home.

New Jersey-based telecommuting consultant Gil Gordon says financial benefits ultimately determine whether a company will adopt the trend. “The emphasis is on the business rationale of telecommuting,’’ Gordon says. “I tell companies that it’s just a good idea, because they’re more motivated by selfish interests than by legislative compliance.”

In addition to the obvious environmental gains, both employers and employees benefit. According to telecommuting pioneer Jack Nilles, employees who work away from the office save their bosses between $6,000 and $12,000 a year because of increased productivity, reduced office space needs and lower turnover. Employees find telecommuting more realistic than using mass transportation or car pools, and it actually takes vehicles off the road. “If you have fewer people driving during peak hours, it can only help,” Gordon says. He adds that some employers still resist the trend because of myths that have grown up around telecommuting. Some companies believe that telecommuters work less than a five-day work week, that telecommuting is used by women who really want to be stay-at-home moms, and that there are high technology costs. “The challenge is to replace those myths with facts,” says Gordon. (In reality, according to a Telecommute America Poll, 46 percent of telecommuters are male, and most home workers use the time saved from commuting to work more hours.) Meanwhile, telecommuting is growing from its base in the banking, insurance and financial service industries and has made inroads in health care and the legal professions.

The San Francisco Bay Area is leading the nation in telecommuting growth, according to a 1997 report of the Bay Area Council. Some 900,000 of the Bay Area’s three million workers telecommute, and the number increases 10 to 15 percent each year, according to the report. The region even sponsors Spare the Air Days, in which commuters volunteer to stay home on days when the pollution forecast is particularly threatening. “To understand the trend, you have to look at the mindset of the Bay Area and its industries,” says Tom Hinman, the council’s vice president of environmental affairs. “We tend to embrace technology.”

A concentration of software and technology-based companies operate in the Bay Area, Hinman says, and employees can easily work off-site in less-conventional settings.

At Sun Microsystems, for instance, 440 employees work at home, sending their work to the office through high speed Pacific Bell ISDN phone lines. “We’re doing our part to help the environment by keeping those extra cars off the road,” says Sun’s Ken Alvares. San Francisco is the second-most congested area in the state after Los Angeles, and Bay Area commuters waste 90,000 hours a day sitting in traffic. Some area companies that offer telecommuting have set up satellite offices—or “telecommuting hotels”—in suburban San Francisco, which enables telecommuters to use an office without a lengthy commute.

Telecommuters are certainly relaxed, and that can only help productivity. Only 15 percent wear shoes to the “office,” a poll revealed, and 34 percent of respondents with pets say the animal is “under my feet” during the work day.

The telecommuting trend will continue to grow as more employees and employers recognize the business and personal benefits. Issues of sprawl aside, the environment can only benefit in the process.