Telecommuting has been on the rise ever since the Internet explosion of the 1990s, but it is truly on the cusp of becoming mainstream, thanks to fiber optic networks, according to Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Telework Coalition. Wilsker, who is on the Adoption Advisory Board for Broadband for America, says “broadband is the missing link of telecommuting because significant bandwidth is needed for real video collaboration.”
Utah Department of Workforce Services director Kristen Cox agrees. “Strengthening the economy is something we’re all invested in,” Cox said. “With the continued expansion of higher speed broadband, telecommuting is emerging as a standard business strategy to lower costs and improve productivity.”
The National Technology Readiness Survey (NTRS), an annual study produced by Rockbridge Associates Inc. and the University of Maryland, estimates that today only 2 percent of the U.S. workforce is telecommuting full-time, with another 9 percent doing so part-time and 8 percent running their own businesses from home.
Yet Wilsker says that virtually everyone is doing some sort of work remotely today via smartphones, tablets or laptops and that this will become mainstream when ultrafast broadband is deployed in communities. “This level of bandwidth results in smooth, real-time video conversations with multiple co-workers at once,” he said.
Wilsker says the 16 Utah cities involved in the UTOPIA fiber project are an example of where telecommuting can really blossom due to enormous upload and download speeds. This community effort provides gigabit-enabled fiber optic lines directly to homes and businesses and is already seeing teleworkers benefit from the large bandwidth.
West Valley City resident Steve Freebairn chose his neighborhood specifically because of the availability of UTOPIA fiber. He has been a digital imaging technician for a number of blockbuster movies and was recently the data management supervisor for "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides."
Freebairn needs to upload and download enormous amounts of data as part of his job. “My Hollywood co-workers are envious, because while they are battling L.A. smog and traffic, I’m enjoying my family and the quality of life in Utah because of my fiber connection,” Freebairn said. “I literally could not telecommute in my job without the enormous bandwidth.”
Telecommuting does not work in many industries, of course, even with ultra-high bandwidth broadband. Even in career fields where face-to-face collaboration can be done via computer screens, teleworkers will be challenged to prove to their employers that they are on the job.
“Workers will have to ensure that they are communicating their value with every email and phone call,” says Kirsten Dixson, author of “Career Distinction: Stand Out by Building Your Brand.”
Additional challenges by teleworkers will be maintaining a proper work-life balance with clear distinctions between “work time” and “family time.”
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But for many, the promise of telecommuting via high bandwidth networks is worth it, benefiting both employee lifestyles and corporate profitability.
A recent Telework Coalition study demonstrated that companies empowering employees to work from home save an average of $20,000 per year per employee. “The benefits for everyone are significant,” Wilsker says, “but we need faster broadband in our communities to make it a reality.”
Julie Paulson is the communications manager for the Utah Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA).