By Request: Telecommuting

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Su Bang says: “As I sit here in my cubicle at Ford WHQ after having driven 20 miles to get here from Ann Arbor, I wonder if cheaper and improved broadband access would make the average white-collar worker as productive at home as in the office thus removing the need for big old office buildings sucking up energy removing the need to commute? If so would this be cheaper to implement than improving/providing mass commuter transportation?”

I don’t think the quality of broadband is really the issue here. At the moment, I’m sitting at the Big Bear Cafe (pictured above) at a table with my non-journalist housemate. She’s working from home (or, rather, the coffee shop) today for special reasons and normally has to go into the office. But whatever the reason is that her employers want her to come in most days, it’s not the quality of internet access.

I do think that this is a pattern we may see changing soon. Some employers clearly put a high value on office location and pay top dollar for centrally located offices in the middle of major cities — think of Condé Nast and Skadden Arps in 4 Times Square. But many companies have decided that specific location isn’t all that important to them, so they should save money by getting space in suburban office parks. Arguably, though, given modern telecommunications technology firms like that ought to save even more money by getting substantially less space — maybe a conference room and a few swing offices — and having most people do most of their work from home or some friendly venue in the neighborhood.

If transportation costs continue to rise, we’ll probably see some change on the margin here. And there are, of course, good reasons to think we should adopt policies that will improve the quality of broadband in the United States. Would that be “cheaper” than new transit construction? Presumably, but it would also be cheaper than new highway construction. I don’t think — and I don’t think anyone thinks — that there’s a compelling case for reducing our overall level of infrastructure spending. The question is primarily one of how much of that should be road spending and how much should be transit spending. The telecommuting issue, though interesting in its own right, is basically an independent issue.

UPDATE: Alyssa Rosenberg had a piece about the federal government’s teleworking initiatives, which are ahead of most of the private sector and starting to serve as a model.

Photo by Flickr user tvol used under a Creative Commons license