Teleworking – The New Normal?

By Melissa Tooley, P.E., Ph.D. (M), Texas A&M Transportation Institute

When companies across the country recently announced new work-from-home policies in response to COVID-19, the news sent employees and companies alike into a tailspin, creating hardships for many. Workers scrambled to retrieve computers, files and supplies from their workplace and identify a space at home to work; IT departments hustled to assist employees with connectivity and virtual meeting capabilities; and leaders of companies with more traditional cultures wondered if any work would get done at all.  

However, none of these issues applied to my household. My husband and I simply walked downstairs, entered our offices, and got to work.

I have teleworked in my position at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute since 2015 and with a previous employer from 2000-2007. My husband pioneered telework for AT&T in 1991, when he volunteered for an AT&T telework initiative and sent his entire staff to work at home. Although no longer at AT&T, he has worked from home ever since in the telecommunications industry.

The benefits of the home office greatly contribute to our overall quality of life. Our jobs are demanding, and we have our files and computers accessible to us when we need them, which in our case is often outside “normal” work hours. We are able to balance our personal and professional lives much more easily than when we were both working in a company-based office.

During the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, working parents have suddenly found themselves juggling work responsibilities with home-schooling and childcare. While we were raising our daughter, we found it easier to manage doctors’ appointments and school or athletic events when we worked from home and could easily return to our home office afterwards. If she got sick, it was less disruptive than if we had to stay home from a company-based office. These benefits would also be realized if one is responsible for the care of other family members.

Pet owners can more easily accommodate vet visits, daily walks, and other pet needs. Household management is facilitated as well, as usually one of us is home to meet individuals for home repair and other services and to receive deliveries. Exercise can be more easily incorporated into the daily routine, and access to fresh food in the kitchen can result in better nutrition and health.

There are more tangible financial and time-saving benefits as well. For example, our dry cleaning and transportation costs have reduced. Perhaps most importantly, teleworking saves time that can either be spent with loved ones, meeting work deadlines, or whatever provides the most benefits on a given day. In a traditional office scenario, the time spent getting ready to go to work, commuting, making a lunch or going out for lunch, adds up quickly and can total hours a day. There are also fewer distractions from chatty co-workers and impromptu meetings.

As a transportation professional, I know teleworking on a big scale has other benefits. Roadways are less congested, the air stays a little cleaner, and we waste less fuel when vehicles aren’t creeping along bumper to bumper. Consider also that vehicles staying in driveways and garages don’t get into crashes, so there’s a public health bonus.

Reduced congestion from teleworking benefits those who can’t telework as well. Commuters can expect shorter travel times; shippers of medical supplies, groceries and other goods enjoy a more unobstructed delivery path; and first responders can handle emergencies more quickly and efficiently.

Granted, there are inherent challenges to teleworking. Teleworkers need to be self-motivated, responsible and focused. Technology must be readily available for videoconferencing, with access to online resources. Designated spaces for offices are imperative, and separate home offices furnished with office furniture for each remote employee work best. Creative approaches to modify spare rooms or other areas can also create functional workspaces. To avoid feelings of isolation, a plan should be in place to connect with co-workers on a regular basis. This can be accomplished with regular video calls with team members.

Because teleworkers are home all day, utility bills are higher and more resources like that precious toilet paper, groceries and computer bandwidth may be needed. However, some of these costs are offset by the tax exemption that can be claimed for a home office.

Not all workers have the same work styles, but differences can be accommodated. My husband and I are “blenders,” meaning that we routinely blend our personal and professional lives. For us, having our offices at home greatly facilitates our lifestyle. But others are “separators” who like to draw a distinct line between work and home life. Separators may have misgivings about working at home, but these may be addressed by having a home office with a door that can be closed at the end of the day and an established work schedule.

We may find at the end of this national experiment in teleworking that brick and mortar facilities are not as essential as we once thought they were. For industries that can accommodate teleworking, this may result in a paradigm shift—a new normal, which has the potential to improve the quality of life for many American workers and their families, while also enhancing productivity. It certainly has for us.                                              

Melissa Tooley, P.E., Ph.D. (M), is a senior research engineer and director of External Initiatives at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in College Station, TX, USA. She is a longtime ITE member and volunteer, and works in her home office in Little Rock, AR, USA.