By Shermakaye Bass

Not terribly long ago, the idea of “telecommuting” conjured a Jetsonian image of people traveling at warp-speed to and from the office. It was the future; the exception, not the norm.

But now, according to statistics from private industry, federal agencies and states like Connecticut, telecommuting is an idea whose time has finally, and fully, come. In droves, major corporations are following the example of ahead-of-the-curve outfits like Sun Microsystems, based in San Francisco, by instituting flex-work programs that allow employees to work from home full-time at least part time; or to come in at off-peak hours.

The reasons are many: The practice saves money and time for both the corporation and its employees; it increases overall employee satisfaction and productivity; and it cuts down on commuter car emissions, as well as nipping the carbon footprint of corporate workplace itself.

A spokeswoman for Sun says that almost 60 percent of its international workforce now participates in the company’s “Open Work Platform.”

The high-tech company isn’t the only one leading the charge – the telecommuter movement has been growing rapidly for the past five years. But Sun is one of the more aggressive “flex-hour” companies in the United States. And new statistics show that, with oil and energy prices soaring and no relief in sight, more companies than ever have jumped on the tele-work bandwagon in the past year.

A 2007 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, indicated that 56 percent of the 590 American companies who participated in that poll had a flex-hours or tele-worker program, as compared to 51 percent in 2006. The same survey showed that 21 percent of those companies granted work-at-home status to some of their workers, a three percent increase from 2006, and that 48 percent allow telecommuting “on an ad hoc basis – up from 45 percent” the in 2006.

Also telling, according to the Federal Highways Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Americans clocked 1.4 billion fewer highway miles than in April ’07 compared with April of 2008. (For more information on traffic trends, visit the government website.)

It seems telecommuting is the 21st century’s equivalent of carpooling. But while many people still carpool to work (those numbers have spiked, incidentally), the movement toward working from home has become a normal part of labor-management dialogue.

According to Shannah Van Winkle, Sun Microsystems recently completed a survey, which found that “an average employee saves 2.5 workweeks per year in commute time, more than $1,700 in gas and wear and tear on vehicle(s), and 5,400 kilowatt hours per year working flexibly.”

Van Winkle, who joined Sun in 2000 and is the business manager for its Open Work Services Group, says the company began experimenting with flex-work plans well before she was hired. At that time, only a small percentage of employees worked remotely. Now, she says, “Right around 60 percent of (the workforce) is either flexibly assigned or home assigned,” adding that the company has about 34,500 employees, worldwide, and at least 19,000 are involved in the program.

“We now consider everyone at Sun an ‘open’ worker, basically – whether they’re taking a business call on their cell phone on the way to their kid’s soccer game or whether they’re working from home full time.”

Van Winkle has first-hand experience. Having gone to “home-assigned” status almost a year ago, she’s already saved tons of money and time. Calculations indicate that she has easily saved $2,600 per year – just in gas costs (based on driving a a car getting 25 mpg, with gas at $4.30 per gallon) – by forgoing the 60-mile daily round trip from her home to the Sun headquarters in the Bay Area. That doesn’t include costs for parking, maintenance, tolls, wear and tear and other unexpected auto expenses.

“And for my lifestyle – I have two young kids – it allows that flexibility to be able to sign on at 5 o’clock or 5:30, when my husband walks in with the kids, or for me to work after they’ve gone to bed,” Van Winkle says. “I really like the focus. I actually get a lot more done working at home. …I go in to the office one day a week – I don’t have to, I choose to – and that’s my networking day, my collaborative day.”

The working mom says numerous factors convinced Sun executives to aggressively promote telecommuting, including a decrease in commute times, increased worker satisfaction and savings to the pocket book and the environment (not just because of lower car emissions but also lower work-place emissions). The practice also cuts business overhead and real estates costs.

“Just because of the office equipment, the energy consumption is reduced when people commute. At the office, we’ve found that it is two times greater than home-office energy consumption. The argument was that people have to run the same (programs) at home, but the average is 64 killowatts per hour at home, vs. 130 watts per hour at Sun. That’s due mostly to people using bigger monitors at work, vs. home people using laptops. Also, you to tend to leave equipment on at work, whereas we tend to turn it off at home.”

Van Winkle cites another statistic from Sun’s recent internal research: Working at home 2.5 days per week saved employees who participated in the survey an average of 2.5 weeks per year of commute time.

“”That’s an extra vacation,” she says, adding “this is a U.S.-only survey. And we found that the average commute for our American employees was 40 miles per day.”
When the company released its findings last month, the Environmental Defense Fund recognized it as an innovator in telecommuting.

In its report, “Innovations Review: Review: Making Green the New Business as Usual,” the EDF stated that Sun’s Open Work Program “prevented an estimated 29,000 metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere while saving the company nearly $68 million in real estate costs.

Sun’s inclusion in the report was announced May 20 in San Francisco at an EDF event with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz.

On the opposite coast, the state of Connecticut has an unusually progressive program. Telecommute Connecticut, which the state’s Department of Transportation introduced 10 years ago to help companies create work-from-home programs, recently reported that the number of at-home employees jumped from 85,260 in 2001 to 158,000 in 2007 – almost doubling over that six-year period.

And from the Big Kahunas themselves – the U.S. DOT – comes interesting new data. A May press release states that Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April of 2008 than in April 2007…and that they drove 400 million miles less this March than last March. Overall, the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on public roads so far in 2008 is down by nearly 20 billion, and is 30 billion less since November.

Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters noted in the release that the decline indicates the “need to find new revenue sources for highway and transit programs.” The statement elaborated that, “at a time of record-high gas prices and a corresponding surge in transit ridership, Americans are driving less for the sixth month in a row, highlighting the need to find a more sustainable and effective way to fund highway construction and maintenance.”

The drops are directly related to the price of oil, but in general, the private sector’s growing enthusiasm for telecommuting has to do with bottom line of running a business (the price of utilities, real estate and leasing costs) as well as productivity, experts say.

Apparently, more companies are seeing that telecommuting is beneficial on a number of levels, and ultimately that if the workers are happy, the company thrives.

Now, in addition, corporations that push for flex-hour or work-at-home programs can boast that they’re greening up, as well.

Even some state governments are considering ways to promote telecommuting in the private sector. Connecticut may be the only one in the country, though, whose DOT has an actual program and advocacy group.

Telecommute Connecticut, which debuted 11 years ago, actually takes funds from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds, which every state receives, and routes them through the state’s DOT.

“The DOT then puts in 20 percent of funds, with a two-part objective: Let’s get cars off the road and reduce congestion and, as the same time, increase the quality of air in the state,” says Telecommute Connecticut’s human resources consultant, Laura Collins.

According to their studies, “if a commuter drives 5 days a week, (on) a 60-mile roundtrip, they pay about $7,800 in commuting costs per year,” Ms. Collins explained.

“In Connecticut we have the most expensive gas in the country right now (averaging about $4.32 a gallon). …If they commuted one day a week, they would save $1,500 per year, two days a week, they’d save $3,000 a year,” she says, explaining that the average model for telecommuting is one or two days a week.

“Companies with (flex programs) have a powerful recruitment and retention tool,” she adds. “The technical capabilities are there now. In the last year and half the technology has really turned the corner to make this possible.”

Collins sees telecommuting, flex-hours, open work and remote employment – however the company calls it – as an inevitability.

“I worked for 20 years in corporate human resources… and also have consulted for over 200 companies in the last ten to 11 years, and I will tell you that organizations that had started telecommuting programs, until eight or so years ago, the concept was a response to employee requests. But over the past year and a half, I have seen tremendous interest on the part of employers to make whatever kinds of flexible arrangements they can make for their employees….

“When you have identified the right employee, the right locality and the right task – and not every job is going to be eligible for telecommuting – but when you’ve got the right mix and place, you’re looking at a 20 percent increase in productivity. People start to approach the design of their job and the way they get their work done differently.

“It’s an exciting sort of foray into what the work of the future is naturally going to evolve into,” Colllins concludes. “The whole concept of brick and mortar will always be a big part of it, but there’s also a large chunk of work that we can do at home (or from some remote location) that we either maintain or increase our productivity. This is what management needs to know.”

In other words, the need to oversee employees, to ensure that they’re doing their jobs – and not futzing around on the Internet (which happens anyway in cubicles around the globe) – is being offset by the growing evidence that most workers, when entrusted to do so, will more than pull their share of the work load. So the old saying that when the cat’s away, the mice will play may be just like it sounds: an out-of-date axiom.

What’s more, when the cat isn’t requiring the mice to spend huge chunks of their cheese on getting to and from work, then the mice are happier and in this case, the cat is too.

Copyright © 2008 | Distributed by Noofangle Media