The stereotype about working from home is that it’s a golden opportunity for employees to binge on Netflix without ever changing out of their pajamas, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said.
Yet quite the reverse was true in a recent state pilot project, he told reporters Monday, revealing that productivity went up by more than 20% among the 136 employees who participated in the program.
“When we talk about why productivity goes up, I think a huge part of that is because those hourlong commutes are soul-sucking,” Cox said. “So you just feel better about life when you don’t have to do that every day.”
Cox and the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget announced Monday that they’ll be expanding the teleworking initiative across state government, hopefully easing building space needs, saving taxpayer dollars and reducing tailpipe pollution.
The pilot project that started in September prevented 273 pounds of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere, the Department of Administrative Services estimated. With as many as 2,555 commuting state employees eventually becoming eligible for the work-from-home option, the telework program ultimately could reduce monthly car emissions by 1,300 pounds, according to officials.
“At scale, when thousands of employees are participating year after year, pounds of emissions [saved] will quickly become tons of emissions, making a tremendous contribution to clean our air across the state,” Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership, said.
The initiative would also lower the demand for state office space by about 63,900 square feet, and Kristen Cox of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget said that would yield significant savings.
“That’s a whole, huge building,” said Cox, executive director of GOMB, estimating that the cost savings could total tens of millions of dollars.
The employees who participated in the pilot were from the state’s Department of Administrative Services, Department of Technology Services, Department of Human Resource Management and Department of Insurance. The recruits worked at least three days each week from home, and some teleworked even more often.
Jeff Johnson, a state purchasing agent who said telecommuting saves him three hours of driving, explained that he feels more responsibility for what he’s doing when working from home. Recently, his wife caught him racing back to his desk after walking away to refill his water and asked him why he was rushing.
“Someone could call, and I don’t want them to think I’m not here,” he told his wife. “It’s just like that extra responsibility of knowing that people might have that perception that you’re slacking off.”
Johnson and two other state employees — Windy Aphayrath, an assistant director of purchasing, and Cat Turner, a state contract analyst — teleconferenced in to Monday's media briefing. Aphayrath agreed with Johnson that she gets more done from home.
“I get less of that drop-in distraction,” she said, explaining that interactions with her colleagues are more intentional when she’s telecommuting.
Spencer Cox also said telework programs could create employment opportunities in rural Utah, noting that Gov. Gary Herbert in 2017 set a goal of bringing 25,000 jobs to these communities. Cox said when promoting this rural jobs initiative, he began encouraging Utah’s tech companies to expand their remote work programs and was frustrated when many businesses rebuffed the suggestion.
So, the state decided to set an example for the private sector by embarking on its own telework pilot.
“Imagine what that does to a rural community now, when you take your family, your kids, a job making $60,000 a year or whatever and take that back to a small town with high unemployment,” Cox said. “Now you’re there, you’re making a difference and you’re living the dream.”
Not all state jobs are right for telecommuting, Spencer Cox and Kris Cox said (the two share the last name but are not related), so officials are being careful about the employees they allow to work from home. They’re hoping 30% of eligible employees, or about 2,500, will begin telecommuting over the next 18 months.
The state is training employees and supervisors about best teleworking practices and makes sure workers have appropriate home office spaces and technology to do their jobs remotely.