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Telecommuting has benefits, but here's why employers aren't more flexible

More Americans are using flexible workplace practices — including telecommuting, co-working and off-peak start times — to add flexibility to their lives and eliminate or improve their commute.

One motivation? Rush hour traffic is getting worse, and commute times are getting longer.

For example, the average American today spends close to an hour getting to and from work. It’s worse in big cities. In the greater New York area, commutes average 1 hour 14 minutes round-trip.

We’re experts in urban planning and development, and started wondering why worsening traffic wasn’t encouraging more people to telecommute.

What do we know about workplace flexibility?

Telecommuting — or working at home — has many benefits. Workers have been modifying commutes ever since the phone and portable computers made it possible.

Advances in technology within the last decade have greatly expanded our ability to work from anywhere at any time. Many of us are taking advantage of this flexibility.

Rush hour traffic is getting worse, and commute times are getting longer.

Census estimates (PDF) show that the percentage of the workforce working from home the majority of the week grew from 3.3 percent in 2000 to 5.3 percent in 2018, and is growing faster than additions to the workforce.

Most people adopt flexible workplace practices just a few times a month rather than full-time, and these numbers are also growing.

How workers win

What are the benefits of telecommuting?

For one thing, it allows workers to seek cheaper housing, yet still have access to a large job market.

They also can use time previously spent commuting in more productive ways.

Companies that offer flexible workplace practices have a competitive edge because they are more attractive to workers. Many high-tech businesses and startups cater to their employees’ needs in order to attract and retain talent because talent is critical to innovation.

Flexible workplace practices also can increase an organization’s productivity. Studies have shown that workers who have control over their schedules and places of work are more satisfied and productive. They don’t quit as often or take as many sick days.

But even with these benefits, most organizations are still not comfortable granting flexibility to their workers.

Even if organizations become more willing to allow flexible workplace practices, we likely never will see a future in which the roads are free of congestion.

Obstacles to flexibility

Our recent report showed that many workers we surveyed viewed managerial and executive resistance to telework as a major obstacle.

Through interviews, we learned that executives saw the benefits of using flexible work to their advantage as a negotiating tool for recruitment, promotion, retention and motivation, but they often worried about the costs of training and potential culture change.

They expressed concern that allowing telecommuting could create inequitable outcomes in the workplace, and possibly negatively affect morale.

Because flexible workplace practices provide so many benefits, we believe policymakers should encourage its implementation. In Atlanta, which has seen one of the fastest-growing commute times of any city, policymakers have implemented telework programs.

It has paid off. From 2008 to 2017, the number of commuters working from home increased from 5.7 to 7.3 percent.

There are no easy fixes here. Even if organizations become more willing to allow flexible workplace practices, we likely never will see a future in which the roads are free of congestion.

That’s because any traffic decreases will result in people that were previously using alternatives joining the roads. This is called triple convergence in the field of transportation research, and it is the principle that congestion self-adjusts.

In other words, you can add more lanes to a highway, but after a while people will catch on, begin using the route and congestion will stay the same or increase.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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