Improving Quality of Life Through Telecommuting

Publication, Workplace, Wendell Cox

Executive Summary

The number of jobs filled by telecommuters could grow nearly four-fold to 19 million in the United States alone and deliver substantial economic, environmental and life-quality benefits for the United States and Canada over the next 12 years. Thanks to its potential to cut costs, increase productivity, and expand the universe of potential employees, telecommuting is also emerging as a standard business strategy for a large number of organizations.

Spurred by advances in information technology, especially the spread of broadband services, telecommuting is already the fastest growing mode of getting from home to work. Facilitated by continued expansion in broadband, telecommuting is poised to become more popular than transit and non-household car pools as a means of accessing work.

Telecommuting’s strong gains have been achieved with little or no government encouragement. Given the range of potential benefits, including the possibility that it could help create new employment opportunities among those with lower incomes who lack the mobility to access many existing jobs, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) believes government should pursue policies to accelerate and maximize telecommuting.

At a minimum, the potential benefits of telecommuting provide one more reason for policies to spur the deployment and adoption of broadband, which is an essential facilitator of telecommuting.

The attached examination of the literature surrounding telecommuting reveals a number of clear trends:

Telecommuting is growing rapidly. Telecommuting in the United States, or working at home while connected by information technology (computers, the broadband-enabled Internet and mobile telephones) to employment, customers and clients, is growing very rapidly. Telecommuting is the only U.S. mode of commuting (mode of transport or access to employment) that has gained market share since 1980 other than driving alone. Moreover, at least three times as many more jobs could be converted to telecommuting. This would result in a 16 percent reduction of travel and greenhouse gas emissions relative to work trip travel.

Telecommuting has emerged as a mainstream organization strategy. As information technology has improved, telecommuting has become more of a mainstream business practice. Many organizations—private, public, and nonprofit—now organize entire departments around telecommuting, rather than simply providing the option to some employees to telecommute some or all of the time.

Telecommuting assists in achieving public policy goals. The use of telecommuting is important in addressing public policy objectives, such as containing the growth of traffic congestion and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Telecommuting has the potential to eliminate 136 billion miles of vehicle travel and 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission per year by 2020. At virtually nil, the cost of greenhouse gas emissions through telecommuting is dramatically below the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ceiling of $50 per ton.

Telecommuting improves economic and personal productivity. Research demonstrates that both economic and personal productivity are enhanced by minimizing travel to work and by increasing the number of jobs that can be accessed by people. By virtue of its travel time of near zero, telecommuting can be inherently more productive for compatible jobs.

Telecommuting could reduce inner city unemployment. Research indicates that lack of geographical access to jobs is a major contributor to unemployment, especially among minority households. There may be a potential for reducing unemployment by focused programs to expand telecommuting into lower income, inner city areas. This could require new training programs and some government encouragement. Such a program, however, could help to slow the trend toward offshoring of service jobs from the United States to other countries, while reducing welfare and unemployment insurance budgets.

Telecommuting needs to be a key transportation strategy. Telecommuting offers superior benefits in relation to public policy objectives. Telecommuting can reduce the number of work trips and thus help to contain the growth in traffic congestion. Moreover, telecommuting causes no work access-related greenhouse gas emissions, and overall leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions than other forms of getting to work.

Demographic trends favour telecommuting. The geographic areas in which telecommuting has achieved greater prominence are growing faster than other areas. More than 80 percent of metropolitan growth since 2000 has been to areas in which telecommuting trails only driving alone and all car pools. Moreover, domestic migration trends are strongly associated with areas in which telecommuting is dominant. There has been a 3.2 million net domestic migration gain since 2000 in metropolitan areas in which telecommuting trails only driving alone and all car pools (and a 3.2 million net domestic migration loss in those where telecommuting trails mass transit or walking).

There are barriers to telecommuting. The most important barriers to increased telecommuting are the reluctance of businesses to use the strategy; the availability of broadband access, especially higher speed broadband; and the fact that many jobs are not compatible. However, each of these barriers is becoming less important as time goes on.

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