Telecommuting has long been promoted as a way to save the environment and reduce traffic. But area politicians now say it's a way to preserve business operations -- and even save lives -- in an emergency.
Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said employees' ability to work from home is the key to keeping government and the private sector operating in emergencies ranging from snowstorms to a terrorist attack.
Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, says telecommuting could help keep government and private businesses operating in emergencies.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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"I won't be surprised if in the future the federal government requires every federal contractor to file a continuity of operations plan," Connolly said. "God forbid, but if there is a dirty bomb downtown and you can't get into the U.S. Transportation Department, how will you perform your job?"
Last month, Connolly asked his county executive for a feasibility plan to require Fairfax contractors to show how they would continue operating in an emergency.
"It is a security issue," said David F. Snyder, chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. "Teleworking significantly improves the survivability of the public and the ability of the transportation system to do what it needs to do."
Snyder said if there were a need to evacuate downtown Washington, or even just a snow emergency, having fewer people traveling helps.
About 310,000 people in the region telecommute, according to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments survey. The council defines telecommuting as working at least one day a week from home.
Information technology firms in the private sector are leading, Snyder said.
"There are another 420,000 people who would telework tomorrow if given the opportunity," Connolly said, citing the survey.
COG has been trying to promote what it sees as untapped potential, but has been hitting some resistance and apathy. A 2003 telework workshop in Rockville was canceled for lack of enrollment.
Jim Larsen, who directs the Dulles Area Transportation Association, conducts workshops for companies exploring telecommuting.
"For some it's a win-win, 'let's get started' approach. For other companies, it's a whole question of, 'how will I know they're working?' " Larsen said.
He said after companies try it, they find productivity can improve along with morale. In the City of Rockville, 155 employees telework out of the 525 eligible. That is 18 percent of the workforce, according to personnel administrator Mary Kate Cole.
Cole said teleworking makes the city more productive during weather emergencies and helps with parking problems.
"I think we're pretty much past saying, 'Yes, he's teleworking today,' as if that means he's not doing anything," Cole said.
Merni Fitzgerald, a Fairfax County spokeswoman, said about 5,000 of the county's 11,000 employees are eligible for telework. The goal is to have 1,000 up and running by year's end, and so far, 800 are.
Julie Withrow, a policy analyst for Loudoun County, said 10 to 15 percent of regular employees -- about 300 people -- telecommute at least one day a month. Over the next six months the county hopes to expand that to 15 to 20 percent of eligible employees.
Arlington County was unable to give overall telecommuting numbers, saying it is a matter for department heads. Montgomery and Prince George's counties were also unable to provide overall numbers.
The metropolitan council's plan is to promote telecommuting for at least one day a week and to encourage businesses and governments to offer a written policy, not just an informal agreement with a manager. Using a uniform standard, the council hopes to have 15 percent of the region's workforce telecommuting by year's end, up from the current estimate of 12 percent.
"It can't just be a nice thing to do if you really want to do it," Connolly said. "It needs to be a clear policy."