With construction-induced traffic nightmare looming, Seattle embraces the telecommute

  • TECH
  • Thursday, 22 Feb 2018

Chyann Jackson, who works for Delta Dental of Washington, sets up a company-issued laptop in her apartment building's common room. (Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times/TNS) OUTS: SEATTLE OUT, USA TODAY OUT, MAGAZINES OUT, TELEVISION OUT, SALES OUT.

SEATTLE: Five years ago, as tunnel-boring Bertha was about to arrive in Seattle, local transportation officials huddled together to talk about what they could do to ease the traffic disruptions that would inevitably come during the tunnel's construction. 

One of the ideas they came up with: Make it easier for workers to work without going to work. Each person working from home is one less person driving through downtown or taking up space on a crowded bus. 

For the last five years, King County Metro has run what it calls WorkSmart, a free consulting service to help businesses set up telecommuting programs for their employees. 

"Even though we're primarily a transit agency, telework is just another way we can support people in getting the work that they need to get done," said Sunny Knott, Metro's program manager for WorkSmart. "It supports our interest in mitigating congestion and encouraging people to get to work in ways other than driving alone." 

There is room for improvement. Telecommuting accounted for just over 3% of morning commutes to downtown Seattle in 2016, according to a survey of businesses from non-profit Commute Seattle. Nearly 10 times as many people drove to work alone. 

Telework is obviously useless for some. Woe to the construction worker who tries to telework. And a teleworking cook won't have a job for long. 

But as Seattle increasingly becomes a technology hub, with jobs that are less site-specific, telework provides benefits to businesses, workers and the city at large. 

"It's nice to have the flexibility of working in between appointments," said Chyann Jackson, who works in human resources for Delta Dental of Washington. "And not to have to focus on how I'm going to get home then grab my car to go to the doctor." 

Now, as downtown Seattle prepares to enter its so-called "period of maximum constraint," with construction projects from modest to mega about to bring traffic to a near standstill, telecommuting is gaining traction among policymakers as a way to help keep commerce – if not necessarily traffic – moving. 

Already, King County Metro's programme has helped about 100 businesses set up telecommuting programs over the past five years. 

In Olympia, a new proposal in the Legislature would offer businesses tax credits for boosting their telecommuting numbers. 

In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan spoke both during her campaign and after taking office about working with businesses to increase telecommuting – and of doing similar things with the city's own workforce. 

And nationwide, a little-noticed Obama-era law encouraging telecommuting in the federal workforce has led to significant increases in government employees who don't drive to the office every day. 

More flex time, Skype 

During her campaign last fall, Durkan said she would talk with employers, Amazon in particular, about ways to keep people from commuting downtown during the next few years as a variety of construction projects are going to make it all but impassable. 

"You take 20% of your workforce and they work from home on Mondays and 20% stay home on Tuesdays," Durkan said last fall. "And I want to do that with the city. I want to say, how do we start having more four-10s or more flex time or work from homes; more Skype meetings to literally have people not get in the cars at all and also relieve some pressure on transit?" 

Since taking office, Durkan said she's talked with "some of our top companies" about the issue but did not respond when asked which ones. 

"In the upcoming months I will continue this conversation," Durkan said. "This isn't new technology – companies and cities around our country have been doing this for decades. We need to do more than catch up; we should lead the way by defining new and creative ways for people to work." 

A bill in Olympia would offer employers a tax credit to offset money spent setting up a telework program, and a US$250 (RM977) credit per employee who teleworks at least 12 days per month. 

The programme would be quite limited initially – no employer could get more than US$10,000 (RM39,100) in tax credits, and the total number of credits given out couldn't be more than US$250,000 (RM977,500). 

Senator Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, touts working from home as a win for everyone – employers save money on office space, employees can skip the commute and work more comfortably and flexibly, and it gets cars off the road, meaning more room for those who still commute. 

"It's probably one of the cheaper things the state could do to decrease traffic congestion," Van De Wege said. 

His bill (SB 6016) passed out of committee last month but has stalled since. 

Cultural changes 

Delta Dental of Washington recently moved its Seattle offices from the relative solitude of Northgate to booming South Lake Union, as the company decided it preferred to lease a new space rather than own and manage its building. 

At the same time, the company started working with Metro's WorkSmart, to set up a programme to give its employees the option to work from home. 

Before the move, teleworking had been a bit of a haphazard affair at Delta Dental, done only sporadically by scattered employees. 

But, since the company set up its telework programme, they're seeing, on average, each of their 200 Seattle employees work from home about once a week. The company is currently working to set up a similar programme in its Spokane office. 

"Especially in the Seattle area, the traffic is horrible, so it's just giving people more options," said Becky Masters, Delta Dental's director of compensation and benefits. "It's a good thing to offer from a recruiting and retention standpoint; employees really value having more flexibility." 

Delta Dental gave every employee a laptop and did training on relevant software like Office and Skype in preparation for increasing teleworking. 

There were also cultural changes to get used to. Rolling out the telework programme took nearly a year. 

"Teams had to go back and talk about what their norms are," said Jackson, the Delta Dental employee. "Figure out what works best for them. When I work from home I'm always updating my calendar, making sure to update my Skype, send a note out. We like to over-communicate." 

Jackson works from home one day a week, usually in the kitchen of her Westlake apartment, sometimes in the apartment building's common room, and sometimes at a nearby coffee shop. 

"Being surrounded by people is nice, even though they're all working on different things for different companies," she said. 

WorkSmart has an annual budget of about US$50,000 (RM195,500) that it's used to help companies set up telework programmes over the last five years. 

There are technological issues to work out – laptops and Internet – but there are also structural issues, many surrounding trust, to work through. 

It's important to set up a formalised programme, so you don't have individual managers giving ad hoc permission to individual employees to work from home, said Elham Shirazi, a national telework consultant who contracts with King County Metro. 

"It's not as simple as just 'go home and work,'" Shirazi said. "We have to get past some employers' misconceptions about 'if I don't see you, I don't know you're working.'" 

At the forefront 

Some of the Seattle workplaces that are among telecommuting leaders have another thing in common: They're part of the federal government. 

The Seattle offices of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Department of Labour and the Environmental Protection Agency all have telecommuting rates of higher than 12%, putting them among the city's leaders. 

All have higher shares of workers who telecommute than who drive alone to work, according to state data. 

That wasn't the case just a few years ago. 

In 2010, HUD offices in Seattle saw employees eliminate 6% of their trips by telecommuting. In 2016, it was 20%. 

In 2010, Social Security Administration offices in Seattle had employees teleworking just 1% of the time. In 2016, it was nearly 16%. 

Other local branches of federal agencies saw similarly drastic increases. 

The changes didn't happen by accident. 

In 2010, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act, which required federal agencies to set up policies for teleworking and tell all eligible employees that teleworking was an option. Agencies have to set goals for participation and report back on their progress. 

The rate of teleworking among federal employees nationally has risen steadily from 14% in 2012 to 22% in 2016, according to the most recent report. 

The Department of Labour estimated that teleworking by its employees nationally reduced car commutes by more than 8 million miles in 2016. — The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service

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