Working from Home—Only in a Land Far, Far Away?

Since passage of the Washington State Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) Law in 1991, major businesses and employers throughout Washington State have readily adopted policies and activities that encourage their employees to carpool, vanpool, ride the bus, bike, or walk to work. Not only do these travel modes improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion, and decrease energy consumption—they deliver people to the office. Eliminating a trip to the office all together, but still working is the most efficient form of CTR – but it’s the least accessible choice for most workers.

Telework Dragons
Confronting telework is an uncertain adventure for some managers

A 2011 CTR survey of worksites in Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater shows that more than 75 percent of commute trips are made by people who drive alone to work. Most people who perform office tasks continue to work in a traditional office environment most days of the week. Countywide, less than two percent of weekday commute trips are replaced by people who telework, rather than traveling to an office.

Why aren’t more people teleworking?

There are thousands of state employees and perhaps hundreds within local government in Thurston County who routinely perform tasks suited for telework, yet the opportunity to do so is a fairy tale. Why do so many managers insist on locking telework away in a dark dungeon?

What are managers’ telework dragons?

Despite the known benefits of telework, major strides in mobile computer technology, and the widespread availability of broadband internet access, telework has only achieved modest progress integrating into workplace strategies. A February 2013 Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) questionnaire sent to high level managers about telework in Thurston County worksites revealed that at those worksites:

  • 42% have an official telework program that contains policies, procedures, and formal telework arrangements
  • 37% permit employees to telework on an informal basis
  • 19% do not allow telework
  • None of the respondents reported they are exploring the feasibility a telework program

Nearly sixty-five percent of respondents reported perceiving telework as a potential loss of productivity due to a lack of in-person collaboration (the same rationale that the CEO of Yahoo! wrote in a memo to recall all teleworkers back into the office). Half of respondents noted that determining eligibility to telework and managing issues of fairness gets in the way of allowing employees to work outside of the office. Maintaining data security, addressing managers’ supervisory needs, and the technology costs to implement telework all pose additional challenges.

Managers understand the benefits, but need help to tame their dragons

Telework can be a valuable resource for organizations and businesses to incorporate into their operations. The survey reveals that many employers recognize the benefits that telework offers. Sixty-Five percent reported it improves their organization’s employee recruitment and retention. Over half noted that telework:

  • Supports their mission or strategic initiatives
  • Improves employee productivity, job satisfaction, and office morale
  • Improves employee work/life balance
  • Enables continuity of operations during storms or other disruptions that affect traditional commutes

Telework Dragons
Managers can tame telework to serve their organization’s needs.

Overcoming hurdles to implement new workplace strategies takes time and a willingness on the part of decision makers and staff to try something different. Administrators need tools and resources to manage telework to suit their organization’s mission and culture. Survey participants rated training for managers as the most pressing need to implement telework. They also cite the need for more resources for specialized information technology, sample policies and procedures, and case studies or reports to develop a telework program. Certainly not last and not least is the need to train employees how to telework.

Some administrators simply refuse to try something they are unfamiliar with. Encouraging employers to consider a telework program can often be difficult, but it doesn’t have to. Regardless of the size of an organization, worksites that have not adopted telework strategies can explore the feasibility of telework by starting out small. Performing a pilot effort over a three, six, or twelve month period within a single department or with a sample of staff members can keep cost and efforts low, but reveal strengths and weaknesses that management can focus on. Shedding the scales of one’s telework dragon a little at a time is manageable.

Click to view the results of the survey.

To learn how teleworking may benefit your worksite, contact:

Karen Parkhurst, Senior Planner
Thurston Regional Planning Council