Working without the Commute

Even as we acquire the latest gizmos and systems, we don’t always upgrade our own modes of operating. Technology has transformed the traditional workplace, yet most employers still insist that workers be on-site for a set number of hours each week.

There’s a small core of what author Daniel Pink calls “free agents” (freelancers and self-employed individuals) and telecommuters (also known as remote or distributed workers), but – according to a 2013 U.S. Census report on commuting – only 4.4 percent of the U.S. population work primarily from home. Meanwhile, 76.4 percent of Americans drive alone to their workplaces.

Remote work is not feasible in all professions or desirable for all personality types, but it’s estimated that at least half of U.S. workers have jobs that could be done – at least in part – from home settings. With all the documented advantages that remote work offers employees, employers and the environment, why aren’t more people embracing it?

On environmental grounds, home-based work holds great potential to cut resource use and pollution. Driving less reduces wear on aging roads and bridges (an important consideration in a state with some of the nation’s most worn-out infrastructure). It pulls cars from the rush-hour traffic backups that are particularly wasteful and polluting – spewing out particulates that further degrade Maine’s challenged air quality.

Working remotely enables individual drivers to cut their CO2 emissions, and permits businesses and organizations to shrink their carbon footprint through smaller facilities. A 2008 McKinsey & Company study done for tech industries that sought to lower their carbon emissions identified telecommuting as the top strategy for them to pursue.

Businesses also benefit from the productivity gains of home-based workers who typically have lower absenteeism, better morale and far less attrition. When Best Buy instituted a flexible work program, it reported a 35 percent gain in productivity, and many other firms have seen similar increases.

Shedding the daily commute frees up more hours for work and the rest of life. Mainers currently spend 23 minutes in “mean travel time” to work (one-way), the U.S. Census reports. Multiply that out over 48 weeks per year, and a remote worker can reclaim roughly 184 hours each year. Once workers recognize this potential for time savings and life balance, it can become increasingly hard to waste three weeks each year behind the wheel.

As a recovered long-distance commuter, I can attest to the sanity and satisfactions of home-based work. For several years, my daily commute alternated between a job 50 miles north and a school program 70 miles south. Even with extensive carpooling, it was a grueling routine and produced a terrible carbon footprint.

Long commutes now are dwarfed by two new varieties: extreme commuting (over 90 minutes each way to work) and mega-commuting (more than 90 minutes and more than 50 miles).

The great irony of excessive commutes is that so few lead to productive workplaces. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-authors of Remote: Office Not Required, quiz people on where they go when they need to get work done – and routinely get answers like a home den, a coffee shop or even a train. Few people cite their office, and those who do typically confess that they have to go there early or after hours for uninterrupted work.

A major cause of fragmented work time is what Fried and Hansson call “M&Ms” – meetings and managers. An hour-long meeting with 10 people, they note, is in fact a 10-hour meeting considering the combined productivity consumed.

Meetings that are critical and well-planned merit the travel and time involved. In-office collaboration can be as essential as the unbroken concentration that remote work allows. We just need “M&Ms” in moderation.

Many workers crave hybrid workplaces–where varied work configurations offer flexibility, and where there’s more emphasis on the “work” than the “place.” If we’re committed to shrinking our environmental footprints and stretching our productivity and life satisfaction, there are better ways to get the job done.