Telework: A Breakthrough Solution for Business, Workers, Climate

Virtual work is ripe for becoming a modern working norm. What will it take to get all employers discover the advantages?
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Did you know that this year the federal government promoted a week dedicated to telework?
The intent was to encourage government agencies to overcome obstacles and discover the advantages of virtual work. General Services Administration administrator Martha Johnson explained, "Telework is revolutionizing the way government works, helping us to be more mobile, more agile, more flexible, more productive, and deliver better results for the American people." Virtual work is ripe for becoming a modern working norm. What will it take to get all employers discover the advantages?

You might hear it called "virtual work," "telework," "flexible work," "remote work" -- all refer to work done outside the traditional workplace. Call it what you will, we can no longer afford to underutilize this opportunity to boost productivity, reduce the trade deficit, and improve our environment.

Technology is changing how we work, and businesses and government are just beginning to take advantage of this change:

  • The Federal government and a growing number of cities and states are encouraging virtual work to reduce congestion, improve air quality, increase productivity, and even balance the trade deficit.
  • Companies are embracing virtual work to retain valued employees, save money on real estate, increase productivity and boost their bottom line.
  • Employees love virtual work because it allows them to reduce their commute time, care for children or parents, and improve their focus and productivity.
  • Environmentalists, concerned about climate change, can embrace virtual work as a way to make 40% to 60% of existing jobs greener.

Over a decade of academic research and business experience confirm the benefits of virtual work -- which is documented extensively in The Custom-Fit Workplace, a book I recently co-authored. Unfortunately, too many employers continue to treat it like a special privilege, and existing programs are often underutilized. Many managers and CEOs are still not fully comfortable with the idea. A case in point: the government includes virtual work in 60% of its emergency plans, yet less than 10% of government employees work remotely even one day a week.

Shifting a significant portion of our workforce to virtual work is win-win. A Telework Research Network white paper suggests that less than 2% of U.S. employees work from home the majority of the time (not including the self-employed), but 40% hold jobs that are compatible with telework. If those employees who wanted to (about 80%) did so just half of the time (roughly the national average for those who do), the national savings would total almost $650 billion.

The nation would:

- Save 289 million barrels of oil -- equivalent to 37% of our Persian Gulf imports

- Reduce greenhouse gases by 53 million tons/year -- 27% of the president's 2020 goal

- Reduce road travel by 115 billion miles/year saving $2 billion in road maintenance

- Reduce road congestion thereby increasing productivity for non-telecommuters as well

- Save 100,000 people from traffic-related injury or death

- Improve emergency responsiveness

Businesses would:

- Increase productivity by over $235 billion

- Save $124 billion in real estate, electricity, and related costs

- Save $46 billion in absenteeism

- Save $31 billion in employee turnover

Individuals would:

- Achieve a better work-life balance

- Recoup 2-3 weeks of free time per year -- time they'd have otherwise spent commuting

- Save $2,000-$7,000/year

- Save $15 billion at the pumps.

To be sure, not every employee is well suited for virtual work, nor, for that matter, is everyone is suited to spending all day working in an office. We should have a rich menu of options available to make work fit both employees and employers. We call this a "custom fit" workplace.

As one key element of the custom fit workplace, virtual work transcends the political divide, and offers clear benefits to all stakeholders. The fact that this opportunity lies outside of most political dynamics means it could be possible to make dramatic progress now. In describing Telework Week, Martha Johnson pointed out that it was, more than anything else, an opportunity for employers to experiment and learn. "Telework Week plays an important role by giving employers and employees an opportunity to test their telework capacity, identify possible gaps in their IT backbone, and build their mobile work muscle."

But let's not stop with experiments, the research confirming the benefits of telework is powerful, now it is time to turn policies into practices. The facts are clear: every business in America should consider how virtual work might improve the bottom line. Let's make this National TeleWork Year!

This blog comes from and and presents innovative ideas to strengthen 21st Century American families through public policy, business practice, and cultural change.

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