With traffic nightmare looming, Seattle embraces the telecommute

Chyann Jackson, who works for Delta Dental of Washington, sets up a company-issued laptop in her apartment building’s common room. Seattle-area agencies are encouraging telecommuting to take pressure off congested roads.
Chyann Jackson, who works for Delta Dental of Washington, sets up a company-issued laptop in her apartment building’s common room. Seattle-area agencies are encouraging telecommuting to take pressure off congested roads. TNS

Five years ago, as tunnel-boring Bertha was about to arrive in Seattle, local transportation officials huddled together to talk about what they could do to ease the traffic disruptions that would inevitably come during the tunnel’s construction.

One of the ideas they came up with: Make it easier for workers to work without going to work. Each person working from home is one less person driving through downtown or taking up space on a crowded bus.

For the last five years, King County Metro has run what it calls WorkSmart, a free consulting service to help businesses set up telecommuting programs for their employees.

“Even though we’re primarily a transit agency, telework is just another way we can support people in getting the work that they need to get done,” said Sunny Knott, Metro’s program manager for WorkSmart. “It supports our interest in mitigating congestion and encouraging people to get to work in ways other than driving alone.”

There is room for improvement. Telecommuting accounted for just over 3 percent of morning commutes to downtown Seattle in 2016, according to a survey of businesses from nonprofit Commute Seattle. Nearly 10 times as many people drove to work alone.

Telework is obviously useless for some people. Woe to the construction worker who tries to telework. And a teleworking cook won’t have a job for long.

But as Seattle increasingly becomes a technology hub, with jobs that are less site-specific, telework provides benefits to businesses, workers and the city at large.

“It’s nice to have the flexibility of working in between appointments,” said Chyann Jackson, who works in human resources for Delta Dental of Washington. “And not to have to focus on how I’m going to get home then grab my car to go to the doctor.”

Now, as downtown Seattle prepares to enter its so-called “period of maximum constraint,” with construction projects from modest to mega about to bring traffic to a near standstill, telecommuting is gaining traction among policymakers as a way to help keep commerce – if not necessarily traffic – moving.

Already, King County Metro’s program has helped about 100 businesses set up telecommuting programs over the past five years.

In Olympia, a new proposal in the Legislature would offer businesses tax credits for boosting their telecommuting numbers.

In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan spoke both during her campaign and after taking office about working with businesses to increase telecommuting – and of doing similar things with the city’s own workforce.

And nationwide, a little-noticed Obama-era law encouraging telecommuting in the federal workforce has led to significant increases in government employees who don’t drive to the office every day.

More flex time, SkypeDuring her campaign last fall, Durkan said she would talk with employers, Amazon in particular, about ways to keep people from commuting downtown during the next few years as a variety of construction projects are going to make it all but impassable.

“You take 20 percent of your workforce and they work from home on Mondays and 20 percent stay home on Tuesdays,” Durkan said last fall. “And I want to do that with the city. I want to say, how do we start having more four-10s or more flex time or work from homes; more Skype meetings to literally have people not get in the cars at all and also relieve some pressure on transit?”

Since taking office, Durkan said she’s talked with “some of our top companies” about the issue but did not respond when asked which ones.

“In the upcoming months I will continue this conversation,” Durkan said. “This isn’t new technology – companies and cities around our country have been doing this for decades. We need to do more than catch up; we should lead the way by defining new and creative ways for people to work.”

A bill in Olympia would offer employers a tax credit to offset money spent setting up a telework program, and a $250 credit per employee who teleworks at least 12 days per month.

The program would be quite limited initially – no employer could get more than $10,000 in tax credits, and the total number of credits given out couldn’t be more than $250,000.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, touts working from home as a win for everyone – employers save money on office space, employees can skip the commute and work more comfortably and flexibly, and it gets cars off the road, meaning more room for those who still commute.

“It’s probably one of the cheaper things the state could do to decrease traffic congestion,” Van De Wege said.

His bill (SB 6016) passed out of committee last month but has stalled since.