The ballooning costs of commuting and growing traffic congestion show the time is ripe for employers to commit to offering expanded telecommuting and flexible work options, according to workforce analysts.
“Right now, a very small fraction of the nation’s workers who could viably work from home on a regular basis are actually doing so,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer for Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement consulting group based in Chicago. “By not expanding the use of telecommuting, employers are negatively affecting the environment, worker productivity, job satisfaction and, most importantly, their bottom lines.”
A report on urban mobility, released by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute on Feb. 5, 2013, revealed that increased traffic congestion is forcing the nation’s workers to build in extra time to their daily commutes—in some cases up to an hour. The research analysts for the Institute’s study calculated that traffic congestion cost U.S. commuters $121 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2011. By 2020, the report’s analysts estimate that the average U.S. driver will spend an additional seven hours in traffic each year and waste six more gallons of gas.
The institute’s statistics are based on data from transponders placed on millions of moving vehicles. According to the report, the worst traffic congestion and longest commute times are in Washington, D.C., where it can take drivers three hours to reach a destination less than 20 miles away. The long and sometimes tortuous commutes do have an impact on the workplace, according to Challenger.
“Workers who do not build in enough commuting time are likely to be late or may simply decide to take a personal day,” Challenger said. “Those who leave at the crack of dawn simply to arrive at a normal starting time are probably fatigued and not in a very good mood.”
In addition, tough commutes can be stressful and have a detrimental effect on employees’ mental and physical health. Challenger and other workforce analysts say that technology infrastructure, such as high-speed Internet, is widely available in the U.S. through traditional wired or cable connections. In addition, 3G or 4G wireless networks are available in most regions of the country.
“It’s definitely not a lack of technology or other resources that is holding back employers’ expansion of telecommuting options,” Challenger said. “It is simply a lack of vision, a shortage of trust and an irrational adherence to antiquated notions of how and where work should be done.”
Remote Work Opportunities
While there are many jobs that must be performed in person and aren’t conducive to telecommuting, the number of jobs that can be done remotely have grown significantly since 1998. Most analysts agree these types of jobs will only continue to expand.
Studies involving telework reveal that remote workers tend to be as productive and in some cases more productive than their counterparts who work in traditional office environments. Employers such as Best Buy, British Telecom and Dow Chemical have reported that teleworkers are significantly more productive than other employees. In a recent analysis of the American Express workforce, researchers for the company found that teleworkers were 43 percent more productive than their office-based colleagues.
Employers like the ones listed above also have reported that telecommuting and flexible work arrangements improve morale and lead to more-engaged employees.
“Workers actually end up concentrating more on their work, because they aren’t distracted by worrying about avoiding traffic and getting home at a decent hour,” Challenger said.
As traffic grows more congested and fuel prices continue to rise, telecommuting options can be a very attractive and cost-effective benefit that businesses can easily provide to their workforces, experts agree.
An Attractive Alternative
By being aware of the issues and the potential benefits of flexible work options, HR professionals can help their organizations determine if telework is a viable option for their workers. While telecommuting is clearly not for every business and for every worker, the realities of longer, harder and more stressful commutes are making telework a more attractive alternative to a growing number of employers.
“Companies will never find out the true potential of telecommuting until they make a commitment to its expansion,” Challenger said.
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.