The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Telecommuting: Still Something to Celebrate

We at Via Meadia believe that telecommuting will play an important role in the new information economy, reducing outmoded commuting practices along with greenhouse gas emissions. But not everyone is so sure. Evgeny Morozov, writing in Slate, argues that telecommuting makes it hard to manage employee productivity and sucks up people’s free time by expanding the number of hours they can work. It may not even be good for the environment:

It might also be that, contrary to some early expectations, telecommuting is not necessarily good for the environment. A 2011 article in the Annals of Regional Science found that, on average, telecommuters end up putting in more travel—on both nonwork-and work-related trips—than those who don’t telecommute

On the productivity question, Morozov wants to have his cake and eat it too: according to the various studies he cites, telecommuters are both lazy and overworked. Which, we wonder, is it? And it seems painfully obvious that as the practice spreads, companies and individuals will both get better at managing it. But on the environment, his point is clear: There isn’t compelling evidence that telecommuting holds down greenhouse gas emissions.

That is much too dismal a view. Some of the benefits of telecommuting will take some time to work themselves out. As IT improves and new generations become more accustomed to interacting virtually, we’ll be able to solve some of the current kinks Morozov points out. But he is also too pessimistic about the state of telecommuting technology today. Even if telecommuters still buzz around in their cars from time to time, the widespread adoption of telecommuting will distribute travel away from the peak times, making it more energy efficient—and reducing costs for infrastructure.

We also think part way solutions will be found. Not everybody will stay home, but more and more companies will move to a system in which a distributed workforce works from a variety of shared satellite facilities around a metroplex and beyond it. You may drive five minutes to a shared office facility where the other folks in the building work for many different companies rather than making the long pilgrimage to your own company’s HQ. That’s a cheaper and more flexible real estate solution for companies as well as an easier commute for workers.

Though it may take some time to integrate telecommuting into our lives, it remains a promising practice for the new information age. Government policy should promote telecommuting as a way of raising productivity, reducing the cost of new infrastructure development and improving the lives of Americans by reducing the time spent in traffic jams and making a better work/life balance easier to achieve. And it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, further decoupling GDP growth from energy use.

Published on January 4, 2013 9:38 am