Should We Be Bringing People Closer to Work, or Work to People?

05/19/2011 02:41 pm ET | Updated Jul 19, 2011

I read recently of a pilot project in Washington, D.C. that hopes to incentivize workers to move closer to their place of work with the offer of $12,000. The goal, of course, is to reduce the traffic and pollution associated with commuting to work, as well as improve the quality of life of those taking part. It's a laudable goal. According to research commissioned by our company, almost 78 percent of employees in our top metro areas drive solo to work every day. Anything we can do to reduce that figure is surely a step in the right direction.

This is probably not the first or only program of its kind. However, there are a number of reasons why this and other similar ones will never make a difference on a big scale. First and foremost, people who choose to live out of town do so for a reason: either they can't afford city house prices, or they prefer the (sub)urban lifestyle. $12,000 won't come close to the costs associated with living in the city center.

But the bigger question is this: Does it make sense to bring people closer to work, or should we instead be bringing work to people? The technology exists that lets any 'information worker' (someone who does most of their work on a computer or phone) do their job from anywhere -- and it costs a lot less than $12,000 per person. So why do we insist on having everyone struggle into the office and back every day?

I like Mad Men as much as the next guy, but I think it's time we moved on from that outdated notion of the office and the nine to five workday.

If we truly want to make a difference, why not let anyone who wants to work remotely do so at least some of the time? By doing that, we could make a dramatic dent in the number of cars on the road -- the equivalent of taking the entire New York state workforce off the roads. The only thing stopping us is ourselves and our fear of change. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, employees fear they will be isolated and forgotten if they don't show their face in the office everyday. And managers fear loss of control if they can't physically see work being done.

All it takes is leadership. I urge you to embrace the future and more flexible workstyles. You won't regret it, and the benefits are for all -- employees, employers and the environment.