The hazy silhouette of the Los Angeles skyline taunts the river of cars inching down the 101 Freeway at 8 a.m. on Friday. Drivers drink coffee, fight leg cramps, and sometimes bang their heads on the steering wheels as patience wanes. So close, yet—driving 8 miles per hour—so far away.
For thousands of Angelenos, the 30-mile trek from the suburbs of San Fernando Valley to the towering office buildings of downtown Los Angeles is a daily ritual. Without traffic the trip takes 35 minutes, yet during rush hour–an amorphous time that stretches from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.–it takes 60 to 90 minutes. Add in an accident or construction, and gridlock nightmares become reality.
Solutions to the L.A. traffic problems have provided minimal relief: Downtown revitalization and a small metro system help a few commuters but don’t affect most car-dependent residents in the 500-square-mile urban sprawl. Gov. Jerry Brown’s answer is a $68 billion bullet train stretching across the state, but in the woefully cash-strapped state, even liberals balk at the idea.
For the past few years, city planners have been advocating a more practical solution–working from home. With fewer people driving to offices, fewer cars congest the freeways, which means less pollution and faster commute times. On a personal level, working remotely boasts benefits of more time spent with family, more flexible work hours, and savings in time and money. But some workers say it also blurs work and home boundaries, and limits social interactions.
Analysts expect the number of people teleworking by 2017 to surpass the number taking public transit. For Don Harada, a corporate manager for pharmaceutical company Sunovion, teleworking has been a way of life for the past 15 years. While he previously worked in an office an hour away, he now spends half his time visiting clients, and the rest in his Valencia home. He remembers sitting in his backyard his first week working from home, watching the sunset with his wife and marveling, “How long has it been since we’ve been able to do this?”
It took a while for Harada to get used to the new work structure: For workaholic types like himself, it was hard to separate work life and home life. In the first few months, his wife had to remind him to shut down the computer at night and take breaks. He sometimes missed water cooler banter, but with phone calls, emails, and business trips, he’s able to build camaraderie with his co-workers.
Still, Harada sees the benefits of being around as his four daughters grow up outweighing any of the disadvantages: “I’m here watching everything. It’s a good benefit being around during the day when [the kids are] actually active. It’s a lot like homeschooling, there’s the freedom of flexibility. As long as the work can get done, you’re not limited by your schedule.” He spends time with his daughters when they come home from school, attends their swim meets, and helps them with projects. He then resumes work later at night.
Others spend their day working in Starbucks, sipping coffee while taking advantage of its free Wi-Fi and outlets. Grant Rodgers, a screenwriter, said for creative types like him, the office setting is not conducive for writing. Depending on the type of movie he’s working on, Rodgers picks different locations to work: his home, the beach, a cabin in the mountains, or coffee shops. Today Rodgers is parked at a Starbucks for the afternoon, working on the script for Rio 2 with his headphones on. With his current deadline, he works 12-hour days and often doesn’t get to bed until 2 a.m., but he said he enjoys this type of work much more than his previous 9 to 5 job at an insurance company. He hated commuting to work, and even now dreads sitting in traffic to get to Burbank studios for job assignments or production meetings.
“I can speak only for my individual line of work, but it’s the preferred way,” Rodgers said.
“Only the suits like producers or managers go into the office. We don’t like that, we don’t want to put on a tie.”
For Rodgers, the biggest downside of working from home is the lack of human contact. Even though he’s surrounded by other Starbucks patrons, everyone is so focused on work that he misses talking with people. He often calls up friends to talk about trivial topics like “Did you hear the name of the royal baby?”
“Bob”—WORLD is using a pseudonym because he fears job reprisal—works as a business developer and consultant and says he’s built a rapport with the other remote workers at the Starbucks he frequents in West Hills. He says he does his best work early in the morning, so he wakes up at 4:30, works out at the gym, then starts working either at home, Starbucks, or the public library. Formerly an employee at a green energy company, Bob said working from home helps the city’s poor air quality, drops his yearly travel from 15,000 to 7,000 miles, and saves him money on gas, car insurance, and car maintenance.
Bob believes technology has advanced to a point where many employees can work remotely, but traditional management has resisted the change. In response to common critiques that working from home increases distractions, he said workplace distractions exist as well: “I’ve seen people playing solitaire or just staring into space. I don’t think losing focus is unique to one setting.”
I tried driving home from downtown L.A. at 4:20 p.m. on Friday. Traffic was stop and go. I arrived at my front door at 5:30 p.m., tired, cranky, and $8 poorer from the day’s commute.
Regarding the time Harada saves by skipping L.A. traffic: His tendency is to “fill it up with work … I know the frustration level is less, and I can say I’m much more productive and efficient because I’m not wasting that time in traffic.”