Utah's state government is telling some of its workers to stay home.
After a successful pilot program that allowed 136 state employees to shift to teleworking, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox has announced a new initiative that will allow more than 2,500 government employees to share office desks as they work from home a few days each week. The state hopes this reduction in commutes will increase productivity and reduce emissions.
It's a good idea, and it could be model for other states to follow.
Contrary to perceptions that working from home means slacking off, telework means higher productivity. It can help reduce worker absences and unexpected sick days, and it allows work to continue during inclement weather. Employees save time and money, and they have more scheduling flexibility. They also tend to be more satisfied with their jobs, which reduces the costs associated with job turnover and hiring new workers.
It can also save taxpayers money, by reducing transit subsidies and office real estate costs.
Utah's government predicts tens of millions of dollars of savings just from spending less on real estate, in addition to reducing carbon emissions by 1.3 tons per month. The state government also hopes that allowing telework will make rural areas that have lost population more attractive places to move.
Tennessee has already had success with teleworking. Governing reported last year that the state has moved 6,000 of the executive branch's 38,000 employees to remote work and hopes to eventually raise that total to 27,000. Program participants have saved an average of $1,800 a year in gas, the state has reduced real estate costs by $6.5 million, and the government plans to sell one of its larger downtown Nashville office buildings, which should translate to another $40 to $60 million in savings.
Federal efforts to expand teleworking have moved more slowly. A Government Accountability Office report from 2013 showed that many federal agencies had failed to act on improving their telework capacities, primarily due to failures to properly track costs and benefits. A more recent report from the Office of Personnel Management, from 2018, found numerous agencies still behind on telework.
But there's a real potential for savings at the federal level. According to an analysis from the economic consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, published in 2013, effectively implemented federal telework policy could reduce government spending by almost $14 billion a year. The firm estimated up to $3.6 billion in real estate savings, up to $5.8 billion in higher productivity, and up to $1.3 billion in savings from lower absenteeism, along with several other benefits.
That's not going to single-handedly solve a federal budget that's on pace to run trillion-dollar deficits for the foreseeable future, but every little bit could help.