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Telework Tipping Point

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In his internationally acclaimed book on social trends, Malcolm Gladwell defines the "tipping point" as an idea or behavior's critical mass or point at which the power of its growth drives the expansion. He uses a metaphor, thinking of an idea or behavior like a virus in an epidemic -- a series of disparate and seemingly unconnected incidents can cause a virus to spread exponentially until it grows out of control. When it's a disease, such as bird flu, the impact can be devastating; when it's a social phenomenon, the impact can be evolutionary.

In March of this year, Telework Exchange and Cisco launched Telework Week 2012, the second-annual event to highlight the tangible value in working from somewhere other than your primary work location. It might be at home, or in an office that is more convenient than yours. It can even be from the top of a mountain (in 2011, I spent Telework Week at Copper Mountain, Colorado and wrote about it in this blog). When I look at the results from Telework Week 2012, I am curious if we just saw the tipping point.

Telework Week 2012 drew more than 70,000 participants, and together they eliminated over six million miles from their daily commutes, and saved more than $5 million in resulting commuting costs. You can read the whole report on the Telework Exchange site, but what is really impressive to me is not the raw numbers, but the year-over-year growth from 2011 to 2012. Those 70,000 people represent an 80 percent increase over 2011, with reductions in miles driven, pollution emissions, and time and dollars saved representing over 100 percent increases in some categories. This type of explosive growth can only mean one of two things -- that we did a really good job at promoting Telework Week this year or, more likely, that the tipping point has been reached.

So, what does that mean? In the case of changing the way we work, it's pretty significant. Regular readers have heard me say in the past that the major barriers to improving the effective management of knowledge workers are cultural, not technical in nature. Yes, technology has improved, but not significantly enough in the last year to drive this kind of growth. Technology advances have and will continue to make it easier to work and collaborate remotely. However, recent research on teleworkers suggests that technology -- while an enabler for sure -- is not the driving factor. Maybe in order to understand what's driving growth, we have to understand what has limited it in the past -- and management resistance still claims that title. That doesn't mean that organizations don't face technical challenges -- it's if management decides to address them, not the existence of effective tools.

Our data from Telework Week show that there has been a small decrease in management resistance since last year, possibly due to the efforts by government agencies to provide more training to managers and develop clearer policies and guidelines. We also found that improvements in metrics for return on investment (ROI) are raising the comfort level of organizations regarding telework.

The lessons learned from this event are clear. Structured programs provide a major benefit as they set forth clear policy and training guidelines to improve communication and understanding. Good metrics enable agencies to calculate and validate ROI, a significant tool in getting management on-board and ensuring smart choices. Identifying technical challenges and addressing them with simple and inexpensive solutions not only supports telework, but also makes an organization more resilient.

Time will tell if we have reached that tipping point, but one thing is quite evident, there is more and more proof every day that people are not content to be stuck using 20th century approaches to address 21st century problems. I look forward to your thoughts and comments. You can email me at jsawislak@teleworkexchange.com or check out my blog at TeleworkExchange.com.