California is known worldwide as a place where entrepreneurs can thrive from the creation of green technologies and also re-inventing the workplace itself.

Innovative business leaders have put this all together by giving employees the option to “telework” – in other words, work from home a few days a week using advanced technologies.

Unfortunately, California’s state government is still mired in inflexible management practices that limit the number of state employees who can telework, even for one day a week.

It’s time for new thinking. Maximizing telework in the state workforce would lower costs for taxpayers and state employees. It also would improve air quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the stringent targets and reduce traffic congestion for all drivers in the greater Sacramento region.

But wait. Wouldn’t this result in a large number of state workers who, instead of working, sit on the couch at home, eat junk food and watch soap operas all day?

Not with current technology for accountability and efficiency. Government must move away from operating according to the ossified thinking of the 1950s and adapt dynamically using 21st Century thinking. According to the April 2008 report “Telework in the Information Age,” by the American Electronics Association (AEA), the most daunting challenge to expanding telework is not technological – desktop and laptop computers, high speed Internet connections, secure file sharing, and teleconferencing capabilities are ubiquitous – but sociological.

By and large, the public sector has not adapted to new technologies and performance-based management techniques. There is little difference between the way a typical office was organized in the 1950s and the way a typical state agency office looks today, except that state employees in cubicles are now pecking away on computers, not typewriters.

Some managers in state agencies, shackled like Gulliver with inflexible civil service rules, believe that if they cannot see employees, they cannot be sure they are working. This antiquated and wasteful way of running the state must change.

In contrast, the private sector is rapidly shaping and adapting to the Information Age because it’s more productive and beneficial to employers and employees. The AEA report notes that more than 45 million U.S. workers telework at least once a week. Productivity is boosted because managers hold teleworkers accountable through results-based performance evaluations. For instance, IBM reported that their teleworkers achieved a 10-20% increase in productivity compared to their office-based colleagues.

Telework is a powerful recruitment and retention tool for businesses and potentially for government. Workers tell surveyors that they face fewer distractions while working from home, gained time from reduced commutes, saved gas, food, clothing and child care expenses, and achieved a healthier life-work balance. In an analysis of data on 12,833 teleworkers, Pennsylvania State University researchers found that telework boosts employee morale and job satisfaction.

State government cannot afford to operate in a “business as usual” mode. The state faces a $21 billion dollar budget deficit over the next 18 months, and the Administration and Legislature will enact additional cuts. Furlough Fridays aren’t going away anytime soon. However, by maximizing telework options for the state workforce, vital missions can be met more cost-effectively, save taxpayer dollars by selling excess state office space and reducing utilities while, at the same time, providing employees an opportunity to save more of their take-home pay through reduced commuting expenses and increased job satisfaction. Telework options should be granted or withdrawn from an individual state employee based on their job classification, individual merit and performance, while increasing service to taxpayers.

Maximizing telework by the state workforce would ease traffic congestion and improve air quality in the greater Sacramento area. According to the “Metropolitan Transportation Plan 2035,” issued by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), since 1970, vehicle miles traveled in the region increased by 190% while capacity on our highways and roads increased only 30%. By 2035, our region’s population will increase from 2.1 million to 3.1 million people, which means significant challenges in meeting traffic flow needs and lowering air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s unwise to rely solely on roadway and transit improvements to get 150,000 workers into and back from downtown Sacramento every workday by 2035. Maximizing telework will be part of the solution.

Our region and California face major hurdles in maintaining and improving our quality of life. By seizing the opportunities of telework, we can achieve a winning solution for taxpayers and state employees.