Telecommuting will be a big part of our future

There's yet another study, this one from Hewitt Associates, that confirms our notion that telecommuting will be an ever bigger part of our future. A Washington Post piece picked up by blogger Steve Bartin also quotes consultant James Ware about the environmental and economic forces pushing firms and individuals towards full or part-time telecommuting, "The combination of gas prices and climate-change issues is going to push a lot of people in that direction."

You don't have to be an Al Gore apostle or a new urbanist to see that telecommuting could be part of the solution for reducing commutes and energy use while also creating the basis for viable communities. What continues to mystify: only a few environmentalists and neo-traditionalist developers embrace this trend. Perhaps it has something to do with individual choice, and the fact that it does allow people to live in the kind of dispersed and low-density environments that so many of these kind of people tend to despise.

Yet there is nothing anti-urban in embracing telecommuting. Many cities, such as San Francisco and Santa Monica, are hotbeds for entrepreneurs working from home. In fact, as the economy continues to decluster, this may be one way traditional cities can reinvent themselves: through the work of a new generation of high-tech artisans. It also offers opportunities for suburbs to reinvent themselves as something other than bedroom communities filled with miserable commuters. For rural towns, it provides a chance to plug into the broader global economy. All geographies benefit when people can choose the kind of community they both desire and can afford.


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At current rates, more people will be working at home than riding transit to work by 2015.

Wendell Cox

I agree, but...

I am disappointed that are not offering any ideas here on how this will come to pass. There is no doubt that telecommuting will be attractive to the commuters - the question remains whether this will be attractive to the employers.

I work for an energy company, where plans are underway to build a sprawling campus to house all of the employees of our continental headquarters. It is hard for me to imagine that the company will easily shift course and scale back on this; moreover, I think it reflects how much pain they feel in the rising gas prices, and their general openness to telecommuting.
I think one of the big problems facing telecommuting is the business model - warm bodies are easy to quantify, and in adding more of them to the same group of buildings, companies don't have to spend any time coming up with new ways to measure productivity. In fact, I am sure they would say productivity increases with concentration. Telecommuting makes us confront the idea that the completion of a task or project is only part of the total measurement of an employee's productivity. The rest of it is hard to define, but we might say "availability" or "responsiveness" - I don't think people want to put a finer point on this when they can just get the employee to drive in every day.

The other problem is that today it benefits the employees more than it does the company. But if we were to assume there was enough incentive to push a company (tax breaks, less operational costs) in the direction of telecommuting, there are new problems for the company to solve. For example, managing an office hub or a group of satellite offices (the way Sun did in the late nineties), that is open for direct connection to the mothership, or face-time meetings introduces new logistical problems, and probably a new department where there wasn't one before: the Department of Making Sure the Lights and AC Are Off When Not in Use, Connecting All These Offices Together,And By The Way Where Is Everybody? My point is that the incentive has to be greater than the problem it creates, and there will have to be something to get us to that break-even-or-better point.

By the way, I found this site through your LAT article via the "Driven to Despair", where you seem to be the lone voice of dissent against the inevitability of suburban slums. I think it is a bit dramatic to expect vast wastelands of five thousand square food homes, but it is hard to deny that energy is a game-changer. It would be a cautious but probably accurate guess to say that all of the above will happen - revived urban neighborhoods, slow decline of suburbs mitigated by transportation-based fixes to energy problems.
One other variable I would ask you to consider - living closer to the center of the city increases your chances of having a radial and not a diametrical commute. Here in Houston, you may live in the Woodlands, and commute to Sugarland (you can google map it, but suffice it to say hours on the road every day). There is lots of industry in the Woodlands and lots of houses in Sugarland. If energy costs get really painful, the options for this employee are: buy a new house or get a new job. Neither are good.
Living in the middle of the city means your commute is going to be about the same no matter what direction you are forced to drive.

Finally, I think the chances of a factory town revival -where service companies are the factory (see Google in The Dalles, Oregon)- are probably greater than the migration of companies to suburbs. Land and resources will probably be cheaper, and assuming the studies are true, the option will be attractive to erstwhile city-folk.

All that said, I agree with you. It is a good idea not only to confront the problems of a digital workplace -I think there will be a reckoning at some point- but most importantly the environmental cost of commuting. But I don't think it is enough to point to a location on the horizon - we need some good ideas on how to make this happen.

thank you

thanks for the comments

i see some transformative changes that will push telecommuting.
2.the social need for families to live near and with each other...this works more for suburbs generation will be far more computer-savvy and unwilling to submit to industrial era routines when not will the future ceos by the way
4.urban locations have political problems that, if unaddressed, will continue to push people out..for example, poor infrastructure, huge pension costs, crime and schools. plus as urban areas become more homogeneous, non -middle class constituencies - poor people, rich nomadics, students - become primary...essentially the city serves as its worst enemy

so although core cities have advantages, they tend to squander them for political reasons. one reason why the population growth there has not accelerated for a decade (except for small redeveloped cores), particularly in the close-in neighborhoods which should be the biggest beneficiaries