Could telecommuting be answer to Austin traffic headaches?

statesman-logoBy Claudia Grisales

Read the article on the Austin Ameircan-Statesman website.

When I saw that Texas’ state demographer recently projected that the state’s population would double by 2050, I immediately envisioned a whole range of catastrophic traffic scenarios — rush hour traffic of new, epic proportions — for state and Austin workers.

It made me think I should come up with a new name for this column: “I Can’t Get To The Workplace.”

The state’s population is now slated to top 54 million by 2050. This, as the U.S. Census estimates Austin is the 11th largest city in the country by population, ahead of San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Boston.

As my colleague Ben Wear noted in his transportation column last month, capacity has pretty much remained unchanged for the past 15 years on Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard (which is humorously called Loop 1, when it really doesn’t loop around anything).

If all that growth happens, how could we possibly all fit on the roadways with this new crush of drivers headed our way?

The answer, some experts say, is telecommuting.

“Bad traffic and both the young and old demographic make (Austin) a prime spot for telecommuting,” said Kathy Gardner, spokeswoman at online job website FlexJobs.

Already, Texas is second only to California for telecommuting, with 4.1 percent of the state’s population working from home, FlexJobs found. California is at 5.2 percent. Overall, U.S. telecommuting has increased 80 percent since 2005.

Spencer Epley, who co-owns a North Austin executive recruiting and staffing firm, recently created a telecommuting plan at his firm and said he is seeing his clients offer it now more than ever. His team is also considering shuttering its office for an all-virtual workforce.

“I think this trend is definitely due, in part, to the growing traffic problem in Austin,” said Epley, co-founder of Hill Country Search Advisors. “I have seen many more of our clients offer new hires the ability to telecommute — way more in the past six months or so than previously. It used to be very rare to have a client offer the telecommute option to a candidate as part of the job offer — almost always that was something to be ‘earned’ over time.”

Epley, who lives downtown, says his work commute has doubled in the last two years, or even tripled “some days.”

Steven Rodriguez, chief operating officer for Austin-based Asure Software, whose products help companies manage workforces, including virtual workers, knows the struggle all too well. Rodriguez has done his fair share of telecommuting and Asure offers technology that can track virtual workers.

“I moved here in 1995 when (Austin) was a sleepy town,” Rodriguez said. “So I’ve seen it all, and enjoyed the pleasure of seeing I-35 build up.”

Asure, through its own studies, has found that 35 percent of desks go unused today in the average corporate office. And with each desk costing an estimated $10,000 a year, wasted space can get expensive and fast, Rodriguez said.

Asure has developed facial recognition technology that allows employees to check into their workplaces through the high-tech version of a selfie. That selfie records the worker’s physical features, whether they are dressed professionally and their location through geospatial technology.

If everything syncs up through Asure’s servers, the worker is checked in for work that day. If not, a supervisor is alerted.

“We are totally at the beginning of it,” Rodriguez said of the technology.

Asure is also working with companies to develop other telecommuting-related ideas, such as “hoteling,” the idea of sharing one desk between multiple workers to drive down costs.

But there’s still work to do to convince some employers to take the telecommuting leap, he said. Some contend virtual workers don’t get as much done, when the opposite is true, he says.

“For a lot of them, it’s control, they feel like ‘I have to see my employee in order to be productive,’” Rodriguez said. But there’s “a lot of it is the distractions at the office.”

For example, studies have found a virtual employee can be two to five times more productive than an employee who comes in every day.

Employers are also learning that telecommuting can be an advantage, on multiple levels, he said.

Telecommuting “gives you a different perspective of the company, you are not there everyday, you don’t get caught in the day-to-day minutia,” Rodriguez said. “As an organization, you have to pay attention to the stress levels, especially here in Austin. You don’t have to live very far to have a long commute. You could live 20 miles away and it can be an hour drive.”