Trends in Telecommuting
While the concept of telecommuting has seen its ebbs and flows, experts say the benefits to both employers and employees remain steady. But research finds there is a price to be paid for the ability to work outside the office.
By Maura C. Ciccarelli
This year's Telecommuter Appreciation Week coincides with the birth of Alexander Graham Bell, born on March 3, 1847, who would most likely be proud of -- and perhaps surprised by -- how his invention revolutionized the way the world works.
Without the telephone and all the technology that developed from it, millions of employees today wouldn't be able to save countless hours of commuting time and expense while gaining scheduling flexibility and greater productivity by working from their homes on a part-time or full-time basis.
Whether you call it telecommuting, remote work, mobile work or distributed work, these flexible-work arrangements are here to stay, with an estimated 20 percent to 25 percent of U.S. employees telecommuting at least once each year, says Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a San Diego-based consulting firm that specializes in flexible-workplace strategies.
About 2.9 percent of U.S. workers (3.9 million people) consider the home a primary place of work, according to The State of Telework in the U.S., a report written by Lister's firm.
The report, which will be released later this spring, analyzes data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau through their 2015 American Community Survey and paints a detailed picture of who is telecommuting. For example, a greater proportion of older employees telecommute relative to total population -- 50.3 percent of people over age 45, compared to 41.3 percent of the total workforce. Fifty percent of women and 48.5 percent of men telecommute.
Among the other findings:
* Teleworkers are more educated than non-telecommuters -- 53 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher and 72 percent have some college or higher).
* Jobs with the highest telecommuting rate (half time or more) include computer and mathematical occupations (8.2 percent), military-specific occupations (7.2 percent) and arts, design, entertainment, sports and media occupations (5.9 percent).
Global Workplace Analytics also calculated that 56 percent of all jobs are telework-compatible. If 85 percent of people in those jobs wished to telecommute at least some of the time, the collective savings would total over $750 billion a year nationally.
That's the equivalent of a typical company saving nearly $12,000 per year for each half-time telecommuter as the result of reduced real estate, absenteeism and turnover costs, as well as increased productivity.
Lister also calculated that individuals could save between $2,500 and $6,000 a year, as well as the equivalent of more than 11 days they'd have otherwise have spent in traffic.
The sweet spot for both real-estate savings and work innovation, Lister says, is in the two- to three-days-a-week range, with "the home becoming a place of concentration and work the place for collaboration."
For companies such as computer maker Dell, it was the bottom line impact on real-estate costs as well as their strategic sustainability targets that made the company formalize its telecommuting policies on a country-by-country basis starting in 2009. It's HR and facilities operations found that some locations were operating at only 30-40 percent capacity.
By expanding their informal telecommuting policies throughout the entire company, today more than 20,000 of Dell's 100,000 employees worldwide work from their homes anywhere from one to five days a week, says Mohammed Chahdi, global human resource services director for Dell, based in Toronto. The goal for 2020, he says, is to raise that number to a full 50 percent.
"Work flexibility became the ideal solution," Chahdi says. "We could reduce overall real-estate cost without having any impact on employees with respect to closing a site and affecting roles happening within that location."
According to Dell's sustainability goals listed in its "Legacy of Good 2020" plan, the average Dell employee works remote 9.7 times per month, saving more than $12 million in fuel costs per year, avoiding 36 million miles of travel per year, and not contributing more than 35,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year.
In addition, Dell has been tracking improved employee engagement, satisfaction and productivity scores as well as customer-satisfaction metrics, Chahdi adds.
Indeed, companies get increased productivity spikes of between 15 percent and 55 percent among telecommuters, Lister says. There's also a decline in absenteeism.
Ravin Jesuthasan, managing director at Willis Towers Watson, based in Chicago, says there are talent attraction and retention benefits to telecommuting programs.
"If you have uncompetitive workforce flexibility practices," he says, "it can get in the way of workforce recruiting and retaining talent."
As a result of this increased focus on job flexibility, Jesuthasan says, teleworking has been increasing in popularity and even morphing into other flexible work-style approaches such as part-time teleworking jobs, hoteling (having non-dedicated workspaces for when teleworkers come to the office) and even sabbaticals, all of which build on the broader theme of job flexibility.
While there are benefits for employees, one study suggests telecommuting's tradeoff for employees: a smaller paycheck. Mary Noonan, associate professor in sociology at the University of Iowa, along with Jennifer L. Glass of the University of Texas Austin, authored a study called "Telecommuting and Earnings Trajectories Among American Women and Men 19892008."
The study was based on a long-running U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics national survey of American workers with a standard 40-hour workweek. It found that those who opted to work at least part of the time away from the office ended up working an average of three hours more per week, which encroached on home and family time.
The sociologists also found that both salaried telecommuters and traditional office workers received an $8-9 per hour increase in weekly pay for a standard 40-hour workweek. However, for additional hour worked over 40, telecommuters saw a weekly pay increase of $3 per hour, compared to $6.50 for on-site workers.
"It's one of the unintended negative consequences of telecommuting," Noonan says. "I don't know if people are aware that they are trading home work time for lower wage growth."
Lister says 40 percent of people in her company's study said they would give up some pay for the opportunity to work remotely, while 12 percent to15 percent said they wouldn't want to do it.
One positive result of Noonan's study was that women did not see a decrease in earnings by working from home. And, despite commonly held assumptions, parents were not more likely to telecommute, which could have something to do with interruptions when the kids get home, despite the closed home office door, she says.
As for the reasons why companies say they don't want to offer telecommuting flexibility, she says mistrust of employees doing their work at home is the largest impediment for managers to overcome, and one that is more emotional or related to the managers' work styles than with the employees' abilities to work remotely. She often quotes a federal agency administrator who says people would ask her, "How can I manage them if I don't see them?" to which she would reply, "Telecommuting doesn't create management problems; it reveals them."
Dell managers get training to think creatively about how to remain engaged with remote workers, Chahdi says. "In reality, even if you can see them you don't really know they are working. However, you will always know that they're working if they are delivering for you and hitting their metrics."
One person who has seen the trend of telecommuting go up and down over the years is Chuck Wilsker, president, CEO and co-founder of The Telework Coalition, a Washington-based nonprofit association.
He says companies need to find creative ways to build team relationships among far-flung members by using technology such as video conferencing, intranet sites and collaboration applications that allow teams to share files, calls and text messages through a single interface.
Wilsker remains a staunch advocate of flexible work approaches because, he says, it just makes sense for some jobs:
"If you work on a computer and a phone all day long, do you really have to go somewhere else if you can do it at home?"
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