teleworkingBy Tim Grzesiakowski

Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo!, made headlines recently when she released a memo requiring all Yahoo! employees who telecommute to return to the office or quit their jobs. Locally, as this week’s closure of the Wells Street bridge has added a wrinkle to some Chicagoans’ commutes, telecommuting has been suggested as one way to avoid delays. Coincidentally, March 4-8 is Telework Week 2013—the third annual global effort to encourage agencies, organizations and individuals to pledge to telework anytime this week.

So it’s a fitting time to examine the pros and cons of telecommuting, which is just one of the many options MPC promotes as part of our Commute Options pilot, through which we’ve been helping 16 employers provide incentives to encourage their employees to trade driving solo to work for a different commute. Through the pilot’s survey, completed by more than 6,000 employees across the region, we’ve detected a growing trend: Employees are increasingly interested in telecommuting; in fact, 20 percent of employees surveyed said they would use telework as their preferred commuting option, with little difference between city and suburban respondents. But when asked what the primary barrier is to using that option, 12.7 percent of all employees surveyed said, “Telework was impractical or unsupported at their employer.”

A recent study released by the Families and Work Institute showed that 63 percent of American employers surveyed allow some employees to work “partially at home” on occasion, with men more likely than women to do so. That’s a significant increase over the 34 percent who reported telecommuting occasionally in a similar study by the same Institute in 2005.  Overall, about 3 percent of the entire American workforce, or more than 3 million people, telework full time. The Association of Commuter Transportation (ACT) reports that 83 percent of the Fortune 100 companies allow employees to telework, including companies such as Google, Microsoft, Genentech and Starbucks.

Several states, including Georgia and Virginia, allow qualified employers to receive tax credits for related telecommuting expenses. Supporters of telework programs cite multiple benefits, including:

  • increased employee productivity;
  • conducting business as usual during extreme weather or disruptions;
  • reducing employees’ commute times;
  • lowering their overall carbon emissions;
  • and lessening the need for capital expansion, such as office space and parking.

Yet not all employers are sold on the benefits of telework. Ms. Meyer of Yahoo! spoke of the need for her employees to be in the office to foster communication and collaboration. It is true that not all jobs are suitable for telework, and not all employees can or want to telework. The Families and Work Institute study reported that 25 percent of employers cited increased costs, 12 percent cited job requirement and job loads, and 10 percent listed a potential loss of productivity and difficulty of supervising staff as negative ramifications of telework.

If an employer is considering implementing a telework program, how should they proceed? Here’s Association for Commuter Transportation’s (ACT) Executive Director, Caryn Souza thoughts on the subject: “A successful telework program requires management commitment and technology, including planning and consensus building, but the rewards can be large for companies that embrace telework.”

As MPC enters the second phase of the Commute Options pilot, telework and similar options, such as flexible or staggered work hours, will continue to be discussed with participating employers where appropriate. It is one of the components of a proposed Chicago Transportation Demand Management program that currently doesn’t exist. One resource that makes the business case for workplace flexibility is the Telework Research Network.  Their website is a good resource for employers considering implementing a telework program.