Thursday, July 9, 2009

Moving the work instead of the worker

Jack Nilles, an early pioneer in the field of telework starting back to the early seventies when work on the concept was just getting underway, reminds us that there is still plenty of work to be done in this corner of the New Mobility Agenda.

One of the best ways to increase sustainability through transportation is to change what is transported from something very heavy to something that is almost weightless. Think about it.

Does it make sense to move 1600 kilos of metal and plastic (plus one person) 50 km each work day instead of just transmitting the worker's and colleagues' thoughts? Why are hundreds of millions of people still stuck in the mindset of the days of Dickens when this is the 21st century? When three of five workers in the developed world are almost solely engaged in pushing information around for their livelihood—and when contemporary information technology allows this information to be sent instantly anywhere—what's the point of requiring those workers to leave home, get in their cars (usually alone) endure traffic jams for hours daily in order to go to an office where they mostly send their information instantly elsewhere?

Why aren't they teleworking instead of wasting energy and increasing global warming? At today's levels of technology about 10% of workers in developed countries could be teleworking essentially full time, either from home or from somewhere within walking or cycling distance. Another 15% of workers could easily telework half time. The occasional-to-half-timers constitute another 25% of the workforce, for a total of 50%. That's a conservative estimate.

Almost 70 million Americans could be engaged in some form of teleworking today; about half that number actually are so engaged, although less often than they could. Those American teleworkers will be reducing America's contribution to global warming by about 72 megatons of CO2 and reducing American oil consumption by about 135 million barrels in 2009.

So why isn't everyone actually teleworking if they could be teleworking? Here are the most common reasons/excuses:

Tradition. We've always worked at some place other than home (at least since the 20th century). That's just the way things are. We don't even think about it. It's long past time to rethink that assumption.

Distrust. Says the boss: “How do I know they're working if I can't see 'em?” This involves the quaint concept that the apparent busy activity of the staff means that useful works are being done. The facts are that, on average, teleworkers are more productive than the in-office staff.

Cost. Says the CFO: “We can't afford the extra costs in these tight times.” The primary costs of a telework program are: planning, training and some additional technology. Once started successfully, telework's bottom-line benefits tend to approximate one-fifth or more of the teleworkers' salaries.

So telework helps reduce global warming and traffic congestion, saves energy, and improves the economy — and doesn't require massive government expenditures, just a few kind words. And once started successfully, telework's continuing bottom-line benefits to employers tend to approximate one-fifth or more of the teleworkers' salaries. The start-up costs normally are repaid within a year. What's not to like?

Jack Nilles,
JALA International, Los Angeles, California
Jack Nilles is an erstwhile rocket scientist and interdisciplinary research director with experience in industry, government and academe. He coined the terms /telework/ and /telecommuting/ in 1973 as part of the first quantitative research project exploring the impacts of sending the work to the worker.

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1 comment:

  1. Check out todays Streetsblog in NYC on this subject: "Riding the Broadband Superhighway to Work" - at Here is the opening section:

    Riding the Broadband Superhighway to Work

    by Sarah Goodyear on July 8, 2009

    This morning, I'm making use of a mass transit system while sitting at my desk at home.

    That's the way the writer of today's featured post on the Streetsblog Network would see it, anyway. On network member blog New Geography, Nicole Belson Goluboff -- a lawyer who specializes in the legal aspects of telecommuting -- writes about legislative efforts to link funding for "the broadband superhighway" to spending on the old-fashioned kind of highway construction and maintenance. It's a post that's well worth reading in full. Here's a taste:

    Click here for remainder of article -


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