A smart way to combat Seattle’s worsening traffic congestion is for companies to allow more employees who can work from home to work off-site at least a couple days a week.
Here’s something I didn’t need to tell you: Driving in Seattle is awful and only going to get worse. The Washington state Department of Transportation reported a 22 percent increase in urban delays due to traffic congestion over the past two years. Combine that with the fact that 1,000 people are moving to Seattle every week, making it the fastest growing city in the country, and we’re headed for a major gridlock nightmare.
According to the city, 49 percent of car commuters in Seattle drive alone to work. The “Move Seattle” master plan wants to see that number drop by more than half. But with Seattle’s explosive growth, how can Seattle ever hope to solve its traffic problems?
Here’s an idea for Mayor Jenny Durkan: Let’s work from home.
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With the right incentives in place, Seattle can become “Remote Work City.” Currently, the city has an annual awards program — along with a 1991 state mandate, the Commute Trip Reduction law — to encourage downtown companies to let their employees pursue alternative work schedules, but it doesn’t go far enough. We must get more aggressive in offering incentives to companies that encourage their employees to log in from home.
This won’t work for every company or industry — it may be impossible for a nurse or retail employee to work from home — but for thousands of employees who work at a desk and primarily online, distributed work is real, and it’s growing in popularity around the world. I’ve experienced this firsthand: I’m one of more than two dozen Seattle-area employees working for Automattic, the parent company of the website builder WordPress.com. With more than 600 employees working from more than 57 countries, we have no physical headquarters. Our work is entirely online, and our daily commute is zero minutes.
My company is an extreme example of distributed work, but there’s a middle ground for Seattle companies: Pick a couple days a week in which everyone works from home. The city can help companies organize their efforts — picking different days so the traffic benefit is spread across the workweek — and create a promotional campaign to drive awareness and adoption. Then give companies tax breaks based on the number of employees who participate.
Improved traffic flow is just one benefit: It would be a boon for neighborhood businesses, with more workers sticking close to home for lunch and errands, and it would improve the lives of employees stuck behind the wheel for hours each day. When it comes to “mega-commuters” — people traveling at least 90 minutes each way to work — The Seattle Times reports that Seattle has the third largest number in the country. If we can put a dent in that number, working parents would be able to pick their kids up from school at a reasonable hour.
One of the biggest hurdles is persuading companies to truly embrace remote work. According to the city’s Transportation Department, “a substantial majority” of Seattle employers support flexible work options: “Approximately 76 percent offer a telework option; 84 percent offer flex time; and 63 percent offer [compressed workweek] scheduling.”
But just because it’s offered at a company, that doesn’t always mean it’s encouraged. Is upper management supportive or suspicious? If you work from home, will it affect your performance reviews? A company can easily embrace remote work best practices, but it will need to start with the CEO. And it’s going to take encouragement from the mayor for CEOs to take it seriously.
The city’s Transportation Department told me that the share of “telework commutes” in its 2015 survey increased from 3.1 percent in 2008 to 4.2 percent in 2015. Some 4,000 car trips per week were eliminated in Seattle because of compressed work schedules and remote work.
That’s a good start, but to get thousands more commuters off the road, we’ll need to go much further. Let’s set a new goal: 10,000 more cars off the road every day. Let’s make Remote Work City a reality.