The “Silver Lining in High Gas Prices”: A Boost for Telecommuting

When I worked in Mayor Bradley’s office in the 1990s, I was part of a task force designed to increase city workers’ telecommuting.  At that time, oil was cheap, but traffic was horrible and air quality still (then as now) the worst in the nation.

We were mindful of the 1984 Olympics traffic experience, when just an 8 percent drop in the amount of cars on the road resulted in traffic that flowed like midnight.  Small changes can have a big impact on the traffic.  Less traffic idling was another anti-smog strategy.  So, we thought it should be possible for City Hall to set an example for the business community.

How silly.  When it comes to management, Los Angeles’ city government will never “lead the way” on anything.

Both management and labor perceived telecommuting as a threat.  Department heads didn’t want anyone out of their sightlines for any longer than was absolutely necessary.  They assumed the worst of their employees.  The unions demanded that telecommuting become a bargaining issue.  Typical of how city unions work, the labor appointee to our task force missed the first two meetings, then came late to the third and asked to speak with me privately.  She said, “We’re not sure if telecommuting is a way for managers to unfairly reward or unfairly punish our members, but either way, we’re going to oppose it.”  Then she sat at the table with the rest of the task force, repeating a few platitudes, knowing she’d killed the idea.

What emerged instead were 9/80 and 4/40 schemes to give some city employees the option of two to four weekdays off per month in return for a longer workday.  What it meant in practice was employees would work the same eight hours worth of tasks, stretched into nine- or ten-hour days, except with an extra day off every week or two.  It was nice for them, but chaotic when it was time to schedule meetings.  Most workers chose Friday to stay home, so Fridays went dead.  Add to that the introduction of casual Fridays — which started after I left the mayor’s office — and the end of each week became a world where Charles Bukowski would have fit right in:  Hardly anyone there, and those who did show up wearing sweats, old T-shirts and shoes you might use for wading into flooded basement.

I don’t know if that’s still the case over there; I haven’t been in City Hall for over four years.  But I digress.

In Southern California, every weekday there are tens of thousands of commuters who drive epic distances to get to work centers in LA and Orange counties.  In the 1990s, the Inland Empire land boom was just beginning.  My last commute was about 30 miles each way and that seemed painful and expensive enough.  Now gas prices have doubled since 2004, and many people are driving west from places like Temecula.   Temecula is almost 90 miles from downtown LA, and more than 65 miles from Santa Ana. Do the math.  If your car gets 20 miles per gallon, pretty good for a beep-n-creep voyage on crowded freeways, it’s costing you nine gallons per day to go back and forth from work = $36 per day just for gas.

I can’t imagine that at least some of those people, and the merciful among their bosses would want to alleviate that.  So, all of a sudden, telecommuting looks less scary, maybe necessary, and perhaps something that will be embraced in a rush.  That’s what Computerworld’s blogger Mike Elgan thinks:

One thing leads to another. High gas prices prompt employers (including the federal government) to allow employees to work from home once a week. Once that’s accepted culturally, an elephant appears in the boardroom: If it’s OK once a week, why isn’t it OK five times a week? (This is what happened with “casual Friday” — its once-a-week acceptance lead to the current trend of casual wear every day.) Once telecommuting is accepted, “extreme telecommuting” — working from the Bahamas or Paris or an internet-connected shack on the Australian Outback — becomes acceptable, too. After all, once you’re out of the office and connecting to the company over the Internet, it doesn’t really matter where you are, does it?

The last remaining barrier to the general acceptance of “extreme telecommuting” is purely cultural — it’s our irrational clinging to obsolete rules for how we work. As the cultural barriers fall, more of us will be freed to work from wherever we please, something which mobile technology and Internet communication already enables.

To me, that’s the silver lining in high gas prices.

Seth Godin, writing about the higher standards business meetings and conferences must meet to make it worth the (increasingly expensive) trip puts the onus on managers to make going to the office a value-added experience, or else:

If you’re a knowledge worker, your boss shouldn’t make you come to the (expensive) office every day unless there’s something there that makes it worth your trip. She needs to provide you with resources or interactions or energy you can’t find at home or at Starbucks. And if she does invite you in, don’t bother showing up if you’re just going to sit quietly.

I’ve worked in three companies that had lots of people and lots of cubes, and I spent the entire day walking around. I figured that was my job. The days where I sat down and did what looked like work were my least effective days. It’s hard for me to see why you’d bother having someone come all the way to an office just to sit in a cube and type.

The new rule seems to be that if you’re going to spend the time and the money to see someone face to face, be in their face. Interact or stay home!

How long before companies in Los Angeles, where the distance of commutes is among the most acute in the nation, adopt this kind of thinking?  I’m not sure they have a choice.

There’s probably money to be made in telling managers how to manage a virtual workforce, because a lot of companies will need to make this shift soon or they’ll lose valuable employees.

(A different version of this post appears on the blog I write for Dolan Media, From 50,000 Feet.)

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