Pushing the idea of working from home could be accomplished relatively quickly – and help reduce traffic jams, writes Colin Chee.
Traffic woes are a perennial problem. It seems only ‘natural’ that the number of vehicles on the road will rise as more people seek to have greater autonomy over their transport needs.
Many alternative solutions have been proposed and considered with the idea that we want to “move people not cars”. Mass transport or car-pooling are the usual solutions.
As highlighted in my other article, while it is indeed difficult to find generic solutions that tackle every sector of the community, perhaps solutions optimized for different segments of the community might have a great enough impact to reduce traffic effectively. In that article, I pointed out two key trends, we could perhaps leverage on for Penang Island, namely:
- Penang is pushing towards more “hi-tech” knowledge workers. This implies to a large extent that future workforce work through computers and the internet
- Minister Gobind Singh and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission have successfully pushed to lower the cost of broadband internet connectivity substantially
Given the above, I propose the mantra “Don’t move people at all!” ie work from home! I have set-up an ‘office’ in my home to do just that.
While this works for me, it may not work for all. What are the usual objections to this?
- I don’t want to mix family time and work time
- I get disturbed by family members
- I don’t have any spare rooms at home
- I have to pay for the air-conditioning!
- I need to use expensive equipment that is only available in the office.
- Managers cannot assess their subordinates’ performance and progress.
- It is difficult for meetings and complicated and sensitive interpersonal communications, and distances prevent effective real-time communication – ie it is like “shouting over the wall”
Can these hurdles be overcome? Here are some thoughts:
- (1) and (2) can be overcome by a change in mindset in the family – when my ‘office’ door is closed, I can put up a sign to say “Please don’t disturb unless extremely urgent.”
- (3) and (4) could be overcome by legislating the following in steps – in the first year companies will need to figure out how to get 5% of their workforce into home offices. Provide incentives to employees – the cost of which can come out of the company budget for providing cubicles for each individual. The more people the company can get to work from home, the less it costs the company to provide similar facilities at the workplace. Keep pushing the boundaries each year.
- In the case of (5) and (6), provide trustworthy employees with rented equipment. Set project deadlines and performance management criteria or targets agreed by individuals. Then they can take whatever breaks they want as long as they meet the agreed goals and timelines. This is already being done by certain companies.
- (7) is tricky. Perhaps having more real-time teleconferencing equipment with cameras and shared electronic whiteboards could be the solution. The concept of telepresence is being experimented with. Multinational companies in the free trade zone are usually more advanced in this area due to the need to connect with counterparts globally. On top of that, companies could rent mobile spaces in condos and shopping malls for meetings. Companies can share these spaces much like booking meeting rooms. By choosing meeting locations that are more central to participants, everyone who needs to get there spends much less time on the road. (Perhaps this would have the bonus of reducing the glut in unoccupied office spaces.)
- Don’t expect everyone to be able to do this, but encourage them telling them how much money spent on fuel could be saved and how they could have a better work-life balance and reduce time wasted in traffic.
Low-hanging fruit, legislation, large-scale government intervention
The “yuppy van” and “ultra-compact electric vehicle” concepts highlighted in my other article may be too futuristic to realise in the short-term. But pushing the idea of working from home could be accomplished relatively quickly. This could provide breathing room and more time needed to carry our more research and development into what kind of third national vehicle we should have.
Local government could work with large multinationals first as they have the most number of employees, capital and experience with teleconferencing. It could engage with industrial zone company associations to decide what percentage of workers to move into “home offices” and the timelines.
Decide on what incentives to provide the multinational corporations. Perhaps some of the cost of the Penang transport masterplan could be set aside for this as it would slow down the increase of vehicles on the road.
While that is being worked out, the third national vehicle concept can begin in parallel. When the yuppy van and ultra-compact electric vehicle are ready for deployment, legislate so that only they are allowed on certain busy roads during peak periods.
Perhaps during lull or off-peak times, standard cars can operate on the roads without restrictions. Then those who want to drive their fancy limousines can also do so freely.
All these proposals work in tandem to address different segments of society. Those who can work from home, should. Those who absolutely have to travel to the office and not mind a little inconvenience can save money by renting space in a yuppy van. Those who have the cash and are willing to splurge on an ultra-compact electric vehicle can do so. Optimisation of office hours to cater for sending children to school should be done as well.
I believe the Penang leadership has the capability to see this whole project through while minimising the impact on the environment.
Dr Colin Chee received his PhD from the University of Hull, UK. He works as a radio-frequency integrated circuit designer and enjoys solving problems. He believes God has created this world for humanity to maintain and develop responsibly.