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Long commutes are on the rise and they are taking a toll on workers – and by extension their employers.

Back in 1980, the mega-commutes – round trip commutes of three hours or longer – were so rare that the Census Bureau didn’t even bother asking about them. But now 3.6 million Americans spend at least an eighth of their day commuting. The Washington Post looked at what that meant for broader economic productivity:

“[L]et's say we could reduce their typical commute from 90 minutes down to, say, 30 minutes -- closer to the national average. Consider the transformational effect this would have at the individual level, giving these folks two hours of their day back. And then multiply that two-hour timesavings by the 250 work days in a typical year -- that's 500 extra hours a year. Multiply that by 3.6 million workers, and you come out to about 1.8 billion man-hours of potential productivity released back into the economy. That's the time-equivalent of 900,000 full-time jobs.”

But as more and more people are priced out of increasingly expensive inter-city real estate, longer commutes will likely proliferate unless companies embrace smarter telecommuting policies – ones that both recognize the toll longer commutes are taking on employees but also address company’s productivity and security concerns.

And that’s where digital communications can make a significant productivity impact.

Sara Sutton Fell, CEO & Founder of FlexJobs and Entrepreneur Contributor, lauds the benefit of virtual communications in Entrepreneur:

“As a 100 percent virtual company, I’ve seen firsthand how the opposite can be true. Video and screen-sharing technologies provide excellent forums for teamwork, and can focus more attention on ideas and collaboration by eliminating or minimizing distractions. Think of the lingering aroma from your colleague’s garlicky lunch, your boss’ pen-tapping or the two ‘besties’ who giggle through meetings. Those distractions don’t exist in a virtual meeting. It’s not to say that teamwork and collaboration can’t benefit from in-office interaction, but they can also suffer. Telecommuting is a helpful alternative where just as much can get done.”

Work Wise UK, a non-profit whose mission is to make the UK a more progressive economy through Smarter Working policies, took a look at the sweeping effects of British Telecom’s work-from-home policies. HRZone reports:

“BT's home working policies have resulted in a 31 percent increase in productivity, with savings of £69 million each year from reduced accommodation and overhead costs. In the 2006 financial year, BT's Workabout scheme reduced BT employees' CO2 emissions from commuting by 7,691 tons, with flexible working saving BT people the equivalent of 1,800 years’ commuting every year.”

And what about companies that say telecommuting can’t work? Sutton Fell disagrees.

These companies “only prove that telecommuting with little oversight and evaluation doesn’t work as a management system by itself. What employers miss is that proactive communication, performance evaluation, management training and employee accountability make the foundation for successful telecommuting, just as they should for in-office work. Without those components, productivity and effectiveness suffer just like they would in a traditional office environment.”

She adds: “Furthermore, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is already a security hot topic, with employees accessing their company’s networks through their own devices, often from home, at night or on the weekends. The best solution isn’t to cancel telecommuting, it’s to create a framework of procedures and security for remote workers that gives IT an effective way of preemptively addressing security concerns.”