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Outlook 2013: Region looks to capitalize on growth in teleworking

Saturday, February 16, 2013
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 Elliott Masie, right, of the Masie Center, is an expert on working from remote locations like homes and coffee shops.
Here at Uncommon Grounds in Saratoga Springs, he shows how a "Beats pill" mini stereo speaker system works with bluetooth technology with Clark Brink at left.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Elliott Masie, right, of the Masie Center, is an expert on working from remote locations like homes and coffee shops. Here at Uncommon Grounds in Saratoga Springs, he shows how a "Beats pill" mini stereo speaker system works with bluetooth technology with Clark Brink at left.

— Elliott Masie often starts his workday at the Uncommon Grounds coffee shop on Broadway, working from his laptop and phone before heading to his formal office a few blocks away.

Whether they work in coffee shops, hotels or at home, a growing number of workers are like Masie, founder of The Masie Center technology consultants — doing more of their work away from a traditional office.

The phenomena is called “telework” or “telecommuting.” Even employees of large corporations are using phones, computers and video-conferencing technology to do their work from wherever they prefer.

“The technology is making time and location less and less relevant,” said Masie, whose center is conducting a study of teleworking.

The Wall Street Journal has estimated nearly 10 million people work from home, though that figure includes people who are primarily self-employed, as well as those who work for corporations and governments. Advocates put the number who actually work for corporations at about 3 million, though they say as many as 50 million workers could do it.

Sales, training, financial and personnel functions can all be done remotely, Masie noted.

“Very often, sales people want to be near their clients and not near the corporate headquarters,” he said.

The federal government is a major booster of the concept within its own workforce, with President Barack Obama having signed the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010. There are environmental benefits if telework reduces commuting, but the federal initiative was driven by what happens in Washington when a rare snowstorm strikes.

“With the federal government, they want to be sure a large number of their employees can telework in the event of a storm or power outage or another emergency,” Masie said. “In that case, they’re interested in continuity if people can’t get to their offices, that government can continue operating.”

Telework, usually on a small scale, is a growing phenomena locally, too.

Officials at the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce were pleasantly surprised by the turnout — 18 people — when they and Masie hosted an outreach meeting for telecommuters in November.

“They worked for a wide range of companies located all around the country and all around the world,” said chamber President Todd Shimkus. “They did a wide variety of stuff, including sales, training, personnel and, obviously, a lot of tech stuff.”

The people who can work from remote locations are mostly living in the Capital Region for its quality of life — things like good schools, safe areas to live and cultural and recreational opportunities, Shimkus said.

“These people could work from anywhere,” he said.

Shimkus reported those who attended the meeting weren’t just the tech-savvy young.

“We had people ranging from in their 20s to, I’m guessing, in their 50s,” Shimkus said. “There were both men and women, and the vast majority had not grown up here.”

To those who want to boost the region as an international destination for technology work, the teleworking trend is an opportunity.

“We could promote our area as a great place to live and work remotely from,” Shimkus said.

Masie said most people who telework are doing it for the sake of flexibility and personal convenience. It can allow people to continue being productive on the job even if they have young children at home or an ill relative to care for.

But there are downsides to working from home, such as the lack of fellowship and camaraderie that comes with joking around the watercooler and the absence of opportunities for the sort of serendipity that can occur when researchers bump into each other in hallways and trade thoughts.

“The group unanimously said one of the things they miss is the ability to interact with other adults,” Shimkus said.

Everyone who attended the chamber event worked for private industry — none worked for the state government or for companies with major headquarters in the Capital Region. That makes Shimkus skeptical of whether there would be significant savings to the environment and in traffic aggravation if people aren’t commuting.

“I don’t think this would reduce traffic on the Northway at all,” he said.

But other observers think traffic congestion would be less and greenhouse gas emissions would be fewer if more people are encouraged to work from home offices, or even in satellite offices, where small groups of employees could work together.

Malta town Supervisor Paul Sausville says traffic on the Northway has only gotten worse since he used to commute to a state office job — and something creative needs to be done about it.

“We never had the stop-and-go traffic you have now on the Northway,” he said.

Indeed, people who drive the Northway during prime commuting hours can attest that a slowdown often starts around Exit 9 in Clifton Park and can continue all the way to the Twin Bridges. The most recent estimates are that about 120,000 to 130,000 vehicles use the Northway in southern Saratoga County every day. Many of those drivers are people living in Saratoga or Warren counties and commuting to work in the Albany area.

Sausville has started advocating moving some state employees out of central offices, citing the ability to do most office work by electronic technologies.

“It’s a really interesting topic,” Sausville said. “When you look at the congestion on the Northway, at the waste of gasoline, the waste of time in stop-and-go traffic, it doesn’t make sense. Fifteen or 20 years down the road, it can’t continue.”

Sausville said he’d like to see the state, which has more than 45,000 employees in the Capital Region, pioneer the concept of satellite offices for public employees. In December, he wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo encouraging the governor to look at the idea.

Sausville said the benefits of satellite offices could include that workers would be in a more professional environment than is possible when working at home.

Conceivably, employees from several different state agencies could work at the same satellite location, he said, each reporting to their separate bosses in Albany by videoconference or other technology.

“It’s going to require some investment in electronics, but nothing like what it will cost to build another lane on Northway,” Sausville observed.

To read all the stories from the 2013 Outlook special report, click here.

 
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