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High gas prices have little impact on telecommuting

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Mark Folse
Mark Folse now lives in New Orleans, but he telecommutes to his IT job in Fargo, N.D.
Courtesy Audie Cornish/NPR News

John Abbott works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St. Paul. He lives about 90 miles away in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. And when he comes in to St. Paul, he usually drives a thirsty minivan.

But he only has to make the three-hour round-trip drive once a week.

Abbott has been telecommuting for about eight years.

"I'm really appreciating not having to buy quite so much gas," he said.

When it comes right down to it you have to have the faith of your boss that you're doing what you should be doing.

Telecommuting four days a week is saving Abbott about $160 a month. And it gives him more of a life, too.

Abbott is the Web master for the Pollution Control Agency. And he's mastered working at home. Abbott has a high-speed Internet connection and all the computer hardware and software he needs to do his job.

"Doing the web stuff for the MPCA and maintaining servers and things like that, it doesn't really matter where I'm at to do that work. And I like the ability to work without interruption."

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management last month found just under a fifth of employers are offering telecommuting specifically  to help employees cope with high gas prices.  That's way up from the four percent response last year. Still, the vast majority of employers don't let most workers telecommute much, if at all.

Telecommuting advocates say that's just plain dumb. These days, perhaps 40 percent of employees could work from home, given the nature of their jobs, the power of home computers, and the speed of Internet connections.

"If they did, that would allow us not to have to import 80 percent of the Gulf oil that we currently import," said computer science consultant and entrepreneur Tom Harnish, who is working on a book about telecommuting.

"The fact is we've talked about a whole lot of other things that we could do to save gasoline. And the one that seems to be the easiest is telecommuting," Harnish said.

Minnesotans more likely to work from home
The 2000 Census found Minnesotans were more likely to have worked at home than the national average. The Census found about 117,000 Minnesotans usually work at home. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
MPR Graphic/Bill Catlin

A serious commitment to telecommuting could reduce not just gasoline consumption and oil imports but also cut pollution, slash organizations' office expenses, trim government spending on roads, and put money back in workers' pockets.

But telecommuting is at odds with America's workplace culture. 

Cali Ressler, a former Best Buy executive and co-author of the book, "Why Work Sucks," said most companies wrongly view work as a place you go -- not something you do.

"In today's day and age that really couldn't be further from the truth. With so many knowledge workers and technology that provides the freedom to be completely untethered, work can be something that you do and not a place you go," she said. "And smart companies seem to understand this."

Ressler said most companies and managers simply don't trust their employees much and judge them more by face time than production.

At Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group, though, the mindset is very much pro-telecommuting.

"You know there's really not a lot of downside to it," said Tom Valerius, vice president of recruitment at UnitedHealth Group. He said nearly 20 percent of the company's 70,000 employees work at home most of the time. They include everyone from computer technicians and nurses to accountants and recruitment managers.

"People are drawn to telecommuting," Valerius said. "It's becoming stronger with $4-a-gallon gas and clogged freeways and all of that than it ever has been. It's much easier for us to fill a job when there is a telecommuting opportunity."

Even at organizations that permit telecommuting, though, much may depend on the attitude of this or that boss. That's got John Abbott of the MPCA a bit worried. He'll be getting a new boss soon. He's hoping it's someone who's receptive to telecommuting.

But Abbott said it all comes down to trusting people will do their jobs well, even if they're out of sight.

"This is still really kind of a new thing. It really shouldn't be.  The internet has been around for years and people have been talking about working electronically for years," Abbot said. "But when it comes right down to it you have to have the faith of your boss that you're doing what you should be doing."

Telecommuting got a big boost last week. The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation requiring the head of each federal agency to set policies allowing qualified workers to telecommute at least 20 percent of the time.