President Bush's call for Americans to reduce unnecessary driving because of hurricane-induced fuel shortages made me wonder how the whole...

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President Bush’s call for Americans to reduce unnecessary driving because of hurricane-induced fuel shortages made me wonder how the whole concept of telecommuting is faring these days.

After all, wireless networks and computerized devices, from personal computers to cellphones to handheld organizers, enable a lot of office professionals to do their jobs just about anywhere, including at home. How much “unnecessary driving” is done to and from work? It’s a difficult number to gauge, even for employees who spend most of their time in front of a computer monitor.

Census data seem to suggest that people are telecommuting more, even though they’re commuting as much as (or slightly more than) they ever did. This may be because mobile workers tend to continue working during evenings and weekends.

No matter how much environmental or energy concerns argue in favor of telecommuting, organizational behavior remains its biggest hurdle, said John Niles, a Seattle-based transportation and telecommunications consultant who has been studying telecommuting for two decades.

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“People in the workplace need the kind of face-to-face interaction that Web conferencing and telecommuting simply can’t provide,” Niles said.

“That isn’t going to change anytime soon.”

Niles thinks rising fuel prices may prompt businesses to take a closer look at telecommuting. Policy-makers in Washington, D.C., continue to push the notion of “telework centers,” a concept tried in Ballard in 1990. While a Hawaii experiment proved successful for a few years, telework centers have had limited success in most metropolitan areas.

Some companies, notably Sun Microsystems through its iWork program, have encouraged employees to work from anywhere with Internet access by tailoring workflow to secure Web connections. But Niles notes that in Redmond, “there’s still a lot of emphasis on spur-of-the-moment meetings at Microsoft” that require employees to be on campus.

I wonder, though, if our society can afford to continue its commuter-based work culture. A lot of driving is done simply for obligatory appearances at the office. You know the kind: A meeting at 9 a.m. Then the rest of the day you’re at your computer or on the phone.

Most of us made decisions about where to live without even thinking about gasoline costs. But $100-a-barrel oil and gas prices of more than $5 a gallon are expected in the next few years.

Do the math. Depending on how many commuting miles you rack up, you could give yourself an instant raise of $30 to $50 a week by working from home.

Actually, you’d save more: less wear and tear on the car (lower maintenance costs) and potentially smaller insurance premiums (based on decreased commute mileage).

Workers will always need to meet and talk. But organizations could set up “meeting days” or otherwise optimize operations around telecommuting.

If financial, energy and environmental considerations aren’t enough, there’s always patriotism.

When someone as closely identified with the oil industry as President Bush says it’s time to conserve, you can bet the rules have changed.

Seattle freelance writer Paul Andrews has written about technology for more than two decades. He can be reached at