Telecommuting's Sluggish Adoption

Working from home has been touted as the future, so why isn't it catching on faster?

Here's a bit of wisdom on telecommuting from a 1972 children's book called 2010: Living in the Future: "People who do office work do it at home. To keep in close touch with other people in their office they use the vision phone. The vision desk is connected to their firm's computer, which stores all the office files. With this close contact between everybody in the office, it is easy to work from home."

Turns out the children who read that book nearly 40 years ago were rather well informed about the future. For years now, when we've asked state and local human resource departments about their innovative efforts, the notion of telecommuting comes up with astounding frequency. A recent report from the Pew Center on the States, Human Capital: Trends and Innovations, found that in 2008, nearly a quarter of responding states said "all executive branch employees" had access to telecommunication. This was up from 11 percent in 2005.

Factors that drive this phenomenon include the price of gas, tightness of office space, a desire to cut down on auto emissions, time spent commuting, traffic congestion and a desire for the flexibility to achieve an optimal work-life balance. In Virginia, which has been a leader among states in promoting telework policies, it has been an attractive idea to both legislators and executive managers, partly due to the horrendous traffic congestion problems. "A lot of the people pushing this are our elected officials from northern Virginia who want to get people off the road," says Sara Wilson, director of Virginia's Department of Human Resources Management.

Wilson's agency has plunged into telework with enthusiasm. Ninety-seven percent of its jobs have been deemed eligible for telework and more than half of employees actually do it. (The definition has been tightened in recent years to include people who work at home at least one day a week.)

Of course, telecommuting is hardly beloved by all. A report from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in August 2009 cited management resistance to teleworking as a major obstacle to its growth. "The biggest barrier to teleworking," says U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, "is a cultural mindset that believes if you are not physically there, you must be eating bonbons."

There are also potential problems with security. Florida's Department of Corrections discontinued its telecommuting policies in part because of concerns over data security--primarily a discomfort with inmate health data being accessed on home computers. There was also a reluctance to offer telecommuting to some employees when many others simply couldn't take advantage of it because of the nature of their jobs (for example, providing direct supervision to inmates).

Even some workers resist. For example, many people enjoy the hubbub and socialization of a bustling office. Virginia's Wilson noted one longtime employee who transferred out of her department "because so many of our people teleworked and he wanted to be around people. He missed the interaction."

There's also pushback from the general public (including state workers who aren't telecommuting themselves). Here's one comment from the State Workers Blog at The Sacramento Bee: "My experience as a state worker is that the folks allowed to telework are ripping off the state in terms of time at work. There is very little oversite [sic] and if there are measurable production expectations or standards such expectations can be handled easily without working eight hours per day. At best, the teleworkers might put in four hours of meaningful work."

That argument is countered by numerous people who say they get far more work accomplished during days away from the office--and away from the constant interruptions of office meetings and the seductiveness of little chats around the coffee machine.

New Mexico embarked on a path toward more telecommuting in 2008 with the announcement of new telework and alternative work schedule policies. The move was prompted by high fuel costs and the administration's desire that state government, as the largest employer in the state, "lead by example" in promoting energy savings. In addition, Santa Fe, where many state departments are based, is an extremely expensive place to live. Telecommuting would allow workers to settle in less-expensive locations, without enduring lengthy commutes.

But the program isn't all that popular. The state's telework policies prohibit employees from working at home. Instead, they are asked to find state offices nearer to their homes that have extra space they can use. Why does New Mexico do it this way? The idea was to make telecommuting as simple as possible for state agencies and ensure that it didn't increase costs by requiring the purchase of additional equipment for home offices. "We wanted to minimize our risk," says Dominic Garcia, chief of staff at the State Personnel Office. "We didn't want to have employees with access to state files on home PCs, and we didn't want to incur costs by giving employees laptops."

In addition, there was the perception factor. "We didn't want this to become a scenario where employees wake up and do their work from home and they're still in slippers and get to work at 10 a.m.," Garcia says. "There had to be some accountability."

While the New Mexico approach to telework gets around these obstacles, the limitations seem to have made it less than attractive to state workers. Between the launch in January 2009 until the end of the year, there were 152 participants out of a work force of 22,000 (compared with 5,315 employees who participated in the state's alternative work schedule program, which allows employees to set arrival and departure times that vary from the traditional work period). Telework New Mexico style may not be the one to break through the barriers.

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