America may be witnessing the beginning of a fundamental change in workplaces, thanks in part to the technology of telecommuting. According to a study by the Dieringer Research Group, 12 million Americans telecommuted in 2005, a rise of 10 percent from 2004. The Labor Department estimates the number at 14 million. Approximately 45.1 million employees did some work at home in the past year. The number of employers who provide some telecommuting options has increased from 32% in 2001 to 44% in 2005, and experts believe these numbers will continue to rise as more and more workers demand flexibility and acquire high-speed Internet access.So, too, may these numbers rise as more and more offices digitize everything, and seek a state of grace known as paperlessness.
Americans spend 46 hours per year stuck in traffic. With gas prices hovering around $3 per gallon, the telecommuting option no doubt has much greater appeal. After the spike in gas prices following Hurricane Katrina, some compassionate employers helped employees with their commuting costs and allowed more workers to telecommute. In fact, the Federal Highway Administration, in an effort to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, has specifically endorsed telecommuting.
Telecommuting has also spread to industries that may surprise many people. Many call centers now utilize telecommuting, meaning that your call to a customer-care center may be answered by a person wearing a bathrobe and slippers.The practice is known as “homesourcing,” and the number of home-based agents is expected to triple over the next few years.
Congressional action to entice telecommuting may not be far behind. Congress is currently contemplating legislation that would provide a telecommuting tax credit to employers, with the hope that more employers will embrace the new technology, thereby reducing traffic congestion and pollution.
There are numerous advantages to telecommuting. When New York City transit workers went on strike last December, telecommuters were able to avoid the scramble of getting to work. In fact, Manhattan-based Deloitte Services LP estimated that 75% of its employees were working from a remote location during the strike. Telecommuting may also provide more options for disabled employees and allow employers to continue operating in the event of terrorist threats, natural disasters, or other crises.
Other advantages to telecommuting may be reduced costs to businesses for office space and supplies, and potentially increased productivity. Employers are also able to recruit employees who otherwise would be unavailable—such as out-of-state employees or workers who want to stay home to raise their children or care for aging parents.And, as many workaholic baby boomers approach retirement, telecommuting may be an attractive option to those seeking more flexibility with scheduling and work location.
One downside to this flexibility is that telecommuters may be expected to work wherever they are—from home, from the corner cafe, or even from a Hawaiian resort. Other downsides include potential security breaches (highlighted by the now infamous stolen laptop containing 26.5 million social security numbers) and the lost social benefits derived from a workplace. Additionally, out-of-state telecommuters may have a legal obligation to pay income taxes in both states. The Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act of 2005 is proposed federal legislation that would help alleviate this drawback.