Telework and Government

When we started our research on telework in the 1970s we knew that one of the societal motivations for increased teleworking would be its effect on reducing traffic congestion and vehicular air pollution. The problem with that motivation was that no one was in charge of the solution, no one was in control, and no one could see a direct impact on the individual or corporate paycheck. So, although we have always maintained that telework does best when it is undertaken purely as a sound business decision, it sometimes helps to have a little push from government. Government's effect may be most quickly noticed when it does have a visible economic impact. Here are some examples.

Regulation XV

One of the first regulations to specifically mention telecommuting was promulgated in 1989 by California's South Coast Air Quality Management District as a means to reduce automobile-generated air pollution. The regulation required employers to limit the use of vehicles by their employees such that the number of vehicles allowed to travel to the employers' facilities was a fraction of the number of employees working at the facilities. The exact fraction depended on the location of the facility, with lower values required for facilities in high pollution impact areas. Telecommuting was one of a number of options allowed for increasing the number of employees per vehicle. Failure to develop and implement a plan for reducing the number of employee commuting vehicles was punishable by a fine of up to $25,000 per day. Although the regulation was limited to employers with at least 100 employees at a location, it did have a noticeable effect on increasing awareness and use of telecommuting. The regulation was repealed in 1995 in response to pressure from employers in the Southern California region—and over the objections of the environmental community.

Flexible Working Regulations

The UK's Flexible Working Regulations went into effect on April 6, 2003. They allow employees to request flexible working arrangements such as teleworking and flexible hours and require employers either to allow such arrangements or explain in writing why they are denied. Employees are given the right to appeal denials and are allowed to be accompanied by a companion to hear any explanation of a denial. One of the impacts of these regulations is likely to be an increase in home-based teleworking in the UK. Here the economic impact appears at first glance to benefit the affected workers by reducing commuting, dependent care and related costs. But our experience is that well-designed teleworking programs also have substantial economic benefits for the employers, once they are persuaded to adopt them. See our cost-benefit analyses for more on that score.

Sealing off downtown: Congestion charging

The central city areas of most large metropolises have long been scenes of major traffic congestion. Although everyone complained about it, like the weather, not much was done about it until Singapore decided to limit access to its congested downtown area beginning in 1975. Car traffic in Singapore is prohibited in the restricted area for cars that do not have the required—and very expensive—permit. Electronic monitoring of the permits began in 1998. Melbourne, Australia and Trondheim, Norway adopted similar plans in the 1990s.

On February 17, 2003, the City of London also followed Singapore's example by restricting access to those willing to pay £5 per day just to enter the area. As was the case with Singapore, the level of traffic congestion in the restricted areas diminished markedly in just a few weeks. Movrs are afoot to export this phenomenon to Manhattan.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodation" to disabled employees. Often this is interpreted as providing wheelchair access, wider parking spaces and restroom facilities, grab bars for easier movement in tight quarters, and the like. But teleworking, particularly its telecommuting variant, is increasingly being used as a form of ADA accommodation. From the employer's point of view, once the "how-do-I-know-they're-working-when-I-can't-see-them?" syndrome is overcome, this is a much less costly means of accommodation than many other alternatives. When the positive side effects are included, such as improved productivity of disabled employees and a heightened public image, then teleworking becomes even more atttractive to employers.

Curiously, some organizations that claim to represent the disabled have grave doubts about teleworking. Their fear is that teleworking puts employees "out of the mainstream", the out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem. Yet our conversations with disabled telecommuters, although not a scientific sample, show uniformly positive attitudes toward telecommuting. Problems can arise in some cases when telecommuting, or broader teleworking arrangements, simply are not suitable on a full-time basis. Still, telework as a response to ADA requirements is a useful and suitable option.

What next?

Clearly, one of the side effects of these and other government regulations has to be increased interest in telecommuting for workers in generaal and particularly for the workers employed in these congested areas, Since most such areas include a high proportion of information workers—most of whom are potential telecommuters—these side effects can also become significant to many corporate and personal wallets.

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Last modified: Tuesday January 3, 2012.

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