The rapid spike in energy prices has led politicians, urban theorists and pundits to pontificate about how Americans will be living and working in new ways. A favorite story line is that Americans will start trading in their suburban homes, move back to the city centers and opt to change everything they have wanted for a half-century --- from big backyards to quiet streets to privacy --- to live a more carbon-lite urban lifestyle.
Yet, there has been little talk about what could be the best way for families and individuals to cut energy use: telecommuting. For more than a decade, the number of telecommuters, both full-time and part-time, has been growing rapidly, gaining more market share than any other form of transportation.
This seems certain to continue with the proliferation of broad-band technology -- as well as the effect of high gas prices. By 2006, the expansion of home-based work doubled twice as quickly as in the previous decade, and now is close to nine million, according to the National Highway Travel Survey of the Federal Highway Assn.
Nationwide, according to the Gartner Group, in 2007 13 million workers telecommuted at least one day a week, a 16 percent leap from 2004. That number was expected to reach 14 million this year. In addition, more than 22 million individuals, according to Forrester Research, now run businesses from home.
Last year’s skyrocketing energy prices appears to have pushed employers in this direction. A CDW survey of private sector employers this year found that 76 percent now provide technical support for remote workers, up 27 percent from a year earlier. Federal IT support, however, has lagged at roughly 58 percent.
In some regions, like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, as many as one in 10 workers are part-time telecommuters. In the Greater Washington Area, more than 450,000 employees telecommuted at least one day a week in 2007, 42.5 percent more than in 2004, according to a survey by Commuter Connections, a regional network of transportation organizations coordinated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. The percentage of employees who telework surged to 19 percent from 13 percent during that time period.
Not surprisingly, home offices, particularly in upscale homes, have become a necessity for many buyers -- demanded ahead of security systems. A recent study by Rockbridge Associates suggests that more than one-quarter of the U.S. workforce could eventually participate full- or part-time in this new work pattern.
The potential energy savings --- particularly in terms of vehicle miles traveled --- could be enormous. Telecommuters naturally drive less, not only to work but for the numerous stops to and from work. According to the 2005/2006 National Technology Readiness Survey (NTRS), the United States could save about 1.35 billion gallons of fuel if everyone who was able to telecommute did so just 1.6 days per week. That calculation is based on a driving average of 20 miles per day, getting 21 miles per gallon.
A more recent study by Sun Microsytems, which uses telecommuting extensively, found that, by eliminating commuting half the week, an employee saves 5,400 kilowatt hours --- even accounting for home office use. They also can save some $1,700 a year in gasoline and wear and tear.
Related technologies, like teleconferencing, according to another survey, could save another 200 million tons of jet fuel, if 10 percent of air travel were reduced over the next 10 years. There are other signs of a shift to substitute the web for the road -- some college on-line classes report a 50 percent to 100 percent boost in enrollment over last year.
In comparison, the talk of a huge “surge” in transit riders as a result of rising gas prices, represents a welcome, but relatively minor, trend, since transit still accounts for under 1.5 percent of all travel. The vast majority --- perhaps as much as 98 percent ---- of the recent reduction in gas consumption came as a result of people simply reducing their driving, not switching to the rails.
Some of this is structural. Most metropolitan regions are simply not set up for efficient public transit; work patterns are increasingly dispersed as opposed to centralized. As a result, the ranks of telecommuters are greater in every metropolitan area in the country outside of the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston areas.
This trend is particularly marked in growing regions in the South and West. In Portland, the mecca for light rail, there are nine telecommuters for every rail commuter. In 2008 Nustats survey, covering Austin, Dallas-Ft. Worth and El Paso telecommuting (at 12 percent) was cited four times as much as using public transit to reduce gas consumption.
Perhaps even more important, telecommuting and related technologies represent a potential sea change for the future shape of families and communities. Already women are well-represented among telecommuters, in part so they can stay home with their children. In a world with fewer permanent employees and longer hours, telecommuting could help mothers stay in the workplace even while rearing children. A growing number of fathers are also looking to work at home to participate in child-rearing.
In many ways, this represents a return to patterns that existed before the Industrial Revolution. In pre-industrial societies, members frequently worked at home or walked to work. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, with its need for mass standardization -- demanding the efficacy of office and factory. Marx, the ultimate chronicler and prophet of the Industrial age, saw how “agglomeration in one shop” was “necessary” for human progress.
Writing a century later, Alvin Toffler foresaw how the rise of the “electronic cottage” would return work to the home -- where it had been before. As he put it, “social and technological forces are converging to change the locus of work” --- back to the home, neighborhood and village. This is part of what Toffler envisioned in his “Third Wave” society, a breaking away from the “behavioral code” of “second wave” industrialism, where work and family were segregated
These trends will continue as economic relations between business firms become less constrained by proximity. Information inputs can come from any source, and increasingly, any place. Of course, there will be serious constraints to this development. Perhaps, most important, will be the reluctance of managers ---both private and public --- to allow this dispersed work
There are also interests, like urban office developers and real estate developers, who might find these trends troubling. Many new urbanists and environmentalists, who one would think would favor this energy-saving trend, tend to ignore or downplay the digital frontier -- preferring a return to the dense, transit-dependent patterns common a century ago.
Even telecommunications firms, which logically should be pushing this shift, seem unable to tailor their products for home-based work, according to a recent Forrester Research study. Morley Winograd, a former AT&T executive, says these companies have persisted in separating their “consumer and business customers.” As a result, they have been slow to abandon what he calls “the obsolete gene” in their corporate DNA, and target the home-based business
Yet in the future, Winograd, now executive director of the Institute for Communication Technology Management at USC's Marshall School of Business, says that developers, corporate executives and, presumably, telecommunications companies will be forced to focus more on this growing segment.
Indeed, new suburban developments, like Ladera Ranch in Orange County, have incorporated such mixed usage into their floor plans -- with separate entrances for business clients. Suburban historian Tom Martinson, believes that the Ladera plan will “be in the history books in 20 years” because it anticipates “an incredible change in the way we live and work.
Many leading companies also see the potential of full-time and part-time telecommuting. Particularly amenable to this trend are leading technology and business-service firms. At IBM, for example, as much as 40 percent of its workforce operates full-time at home. Other companies, including Siemens, Compaq, Cisco, Merrill Lynch and American Express, have expanded their use of telecommuting, with increased productivity
As more companies let go of their “command and control” approach to management, this practice seems likely to increase. Certainly the employee demand is there; one-third, according to one survey, would choose this option, even if it meant somewhat less pay. Teleworkers also generally show a higher job satisfaction
This is also being adopted in some states and cities. Georgia, for example, approved tax credits this year for creating and expanding telework.
But perhaps the biggest impetus, suggests Winograd, the former telecom executive, is the gradual ascendancy of younger workers. The millennial generation --- the subject of his recent book, "Millennial Makeover," co-written with Mike Hais --- “have grown up up with the Internet and stay connected to the world on their laptops or cellphones 24/7” and sees “distinctions between work and life as arbitrary and unnecessary.”
These younger Americans will likely see no reason to spend an hour in a car, bus or train to get from one computer screen to another. Once adopted by employers, this shift may do more to reduce the carbon imprint than all the current calls for largely unwelcome shifts in the daily lifestyles of many American