Telework: One Idea to Hold Down Government Cost

A conservative thinker argues encouraging more federal government employees to work from home could save taxpayers money.
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A conservative thinker argues encouraging more federal government employees to work from home could save taxpayers money.

Kenneth Green’s office at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington, has 12 long-tube fluorescent lights overhead, a computer, a dedicated phone line, a bank of air conditioners and a fan — all just for him, all sitting there (much of it powered on) even when he’s not.

Imagine the savings in energy — and money — if none of that were necessary, if Green didn’t even have to burn fuel to get there because, well, he has a lamp and a power outlet at home that work perfectly fine.

Green makes this point as an evangelist for telework, a role he readily admits many liberals may find odd.

“They mistakenly think the only motivations for telework are liberal ones: work-life balance, more flexibility for employees,” he said, "but a huge amount of it is actually economy and energy related, and tied to the cost of government. We all want a lower cost of government.”

Green has authored a new policy brief arguing that the nation’s biggest employers — federal, state and municipal governments — should lead by example in urging more employees to work from home. That’s the fair place to start, he says, when Washington has been urging (in some cases forcing) the private sector to conserve energy, whether through state-level employer ridesharing and recycling mandates, or nationwide cap-and-trade.

Telework is a potentially simple solution to myriad social ills: traffic congestion, foreign oil dependence, environmental pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, high employer energy bills and commuter travel costs, and, of course, wasted time. The average teleworker, Green figures, could save each year 339 gallons of gas, $1,018 in transportation costs and 6,584 pounds of carbon dioxide by working out of the den or dining room more often.

Decentralizing any work force could also curb the spread of public health scares like swine flu and keep agencies working in the midst of terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

For all of these potential outcomes, though, the concept has plenty of naysayers, starting, Green says warily, with cultural opposition in the capital.

“If you’re a [government] program administrator, your importance is based on how many people work for you,” he said. “That also determines how big a building you have, how fancy a building you have and how much lovely artwork you get from the Smithsonian. All those status symbols have to do with lots and lots of warm bodies lined up in cubicles, where you can show them off to officials parading through.”

To others — downtown deli owners, janitor services, public transit agencies — telework represents business lost amid all that energy saved. And unions may fret about the increasingly blurry line between when employees clock into the job and back out to home life (already a messy issue with the widespread adoption of e-mail-equipped smart phones).

Green, though, suggests the trade-offs still tip in favor of telework. Some research suggests teleworkers are more productive; they’re more likely to work through sickness or to return to work more quickly from an event as big as a pregnancy or as small as a routine doctor’s appointment.

Silicon Valley employers were among the first to promote the idea. But Green says the federal government should be next in line, both to spur adoption in the private sector by example (not legislation) and because governments employ so many of the information workers who are prime candidates for a home office. Some government employees — those who access classified computer networks or who man the offices where citizens need help filing paperwork — won’t be able to make the switch.

But Green isn’t talking about emptying every downtown office building tomorrow for endless suburban subdivisions of stay-at-home worker bees. A gradual and partial transition would do. Government could start by encouraging the idea (many federal employees are eligible for telework but don’t even know it) and by removing policies that are downright hostile to it. States like New York, for instance, tax out-of-state teleworkers in-state even if they’ve never set foot in a local office. And federal tax law makes life hard on anyone who wants to take a home office deduction.

“I actually don’t believe it’s the job of government to tell private institutions how to arrange their labor force,” Green said. “It is, however — since government works for me — our legitimate role to tell them how to organize their labor force.”