A Virtually Perfect Labor Day

The data about the benefits of virtual work are compelling. Is it really just unthinking fear that is stopping us? But businesses must recognize that there is a flipside to the risks of change - which is that there are risks in not changing, too.
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I work from home. So do all the people who work with MomsRising.org and MoveOn.org, the two organizations I co-founded. It works great for us and has for years, and so, when I read that the number of U.S. telecommuters dipped to 8.7 million in 2009 from 9.2 million in 2006 (according to the IDC, a Framingham, Massachusetts research concern), I did a double take.

What is going on? Word is that this drop is not due to job loss or employers discouraging virtual work. Rather, employees are too anxious to ask for any kind of special work arrangement in uncertain economic times. Social scientists explain that when we are fearful, we are less creative and tend to hunker down with what is familiar and feels safe. But I know, as an employer, what substantial research finds: that virtual work is a great way for small organizations to do more with less and for any workplace to boost the bottom line. I worry, this Labor Day, that employers and employees frozen in a defensive crouch are going to miss an opportunity for all of us to be more successful and improve our working lives.

Though this might surprise people who opine about the influence of MoveOn.org (and MomsRising.org), these organizations are entirely virtual. They have no physical headquarters. Offices cost money, and we choose to spend the funds we have on advocacy and education, instead of walls and floors. We also find that trusting our employees to work wherever it works for them means we get great people who are happy and remarkably productive. When my daughter gets sick, I don't have to choose between getting my work done and being there for her, and if I want to go for a hike on Tuesday afternoon, I can. I work when the time is best for me and for the work I'm doing.

I know from experience that intelligently structured virtual work is incredibly good for business and cost effective.

We are not the only organizations that have discovered this. Most virtual workers work for traditional organizations with which we are all familiar. A recent study from Brigham Young University reports that telecommuting, coupled with flexibility, dramatically reduces work/life conflict and has saved millions of dollars for IBM. AT&T saved over 6 million dollars in real estate costs in New Jersey and realized millions of dollars in productivity gains when they embraced virtual work. Jet Blue's call center is not in India; it is in homes in Utah, which lets the company realize cost savings while keeping jobs in the United States. Virtual and flexible work are management opportunities.

While some organizations are embracing virtual work, even more people would like to try it. One survey on worker productivity found that nearly 60% of employees believe that telecommuting at least part time is the ideal work situation. 60% of federal agencies include virtual work in their emergency and continuity of operations plans in 2007.

Yet only 7% of eligible federal employees regularly telecommute. The Employment Policy foundation suggested that 65% of jobs could be done remotely, yet less than 30% of managers and professionals work virtually even one day a week and far fewer in more blue-collar jobs. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

The data about the benefits of virtual work are compelling. Is it really just unthinking fear that is stopping us? Change does create risk and new challenges. Individuals, managers, and even chief executives are feeling risk averse. It is not surprising that employees fear asking for flexibility or the ability to work virtually when they are fearful that their jobs might be cut. Likewise, managers who have the benefit of a hungry labor pool may not experience a strong push to make their employees' lives better at the risk of having that change create unforeseen challenges.

But businesses must recognize that there is a flipside to the risks of change - which is that there are risks in not changing, too. I have a hard time imagining a more efficient, environmentally sound, family-friendly work practice for a surprisingly broad swath of jobs in this country than virtual work. This is not the kind of opportunity business can afford to overlook.

It is time for those of us that have experienced the benefits of these non-traditional work practices to reassure others that embracing these new practices is not only good for the bottom line, but necessary for success in the coming decade. Working virtually is what has enabled MoveOn.org and MomsRising.org to do so much with the resources we have. So I'm speaking out, and I hope others will too.

This Labor Day, it is time to get serious about embracing virtual work.

This blog is part of the Peaceful Revolution series that explores innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.

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