A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 9, 2014

Telecommuting Is on the Rise, Even Though What It Is and Who Does It Is Changing

There are two telecommuting stereotypes: the slacker dude who is scamming the office by pretending he or she has to be somewhere 'to think clearly' but is really just kicking back or, the other being the harried but competent mom with advanced degrees and experience who is raising kids but trying to keep her options open by logging a few hours a week to stay relevant and not entirely lose her place in the professional queue.

There is probably some truth in both of those images, but the reality, increasingly, is far different.

The typical telecommuter nowadays is older, more experienced, higher paid and works for a bigger company than the cliches would suggest. As the following article explains, telecommuting is on the rise, having risen almost 80 percent in the past decade.

The reason is that it makes sense: enterprises and their employees want some flexibility some of the time and technology has enabled that interface of desire and pragmatism. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was severely criticized when she temporarily ended telecommuting at that company, though many mistakenly assumed that betokened a move away from the trend. In reality, that was a one-off, driven by a new leader's need to assess, re-orient and re-train the workforce of a troubled business.

Given the difficulty of finding people who have skills and experience for requisite tasks, the imperatives of the 24-7 economy and the enhanced mobility of the latest devices, need and function are aligned. There is some concern that institutions will view this as yet another way of shifting costs and responsibilities to employees or contractors without a concomitant increase in compensation, but employees desire to have some time in an office and employers' need for control by regularly having them show up someplace physically accountable may well be generating what turns out to be a mutually beneficial accommodation. JL

Alina Tugend reports in the New York Times:

Actually, the typical telecommuter is a 49-year-old college graduate — man or woman — who earns about $58,000 a year and belongs to a company with more than 100 employees
WE all know what telecommuting is and who does it. It’s working from home (or maybe a Starbucks), and it’s usually done by someone in their 20s, or a mother with small children.
Well, no. Actually, the typical telecommuter is a 49-year-old college graduate — man or woman — who earns about $58,000 a year and belongs to a company with more than 100 employees, according to numbers culled from the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey.
And the phenomenon appears to be growing. The annual survey last year by the Society for Human Resource Management found a greater increase in the number of companies planning to offer telecommuting in 2014 than those offering just about any other new benefit.
This winter might help push the trend even faster. Federal employees in Washington who worked from home during four official snow days saved the government an estimated $32 million, according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, and its research arm Telework Research Network.
And as this movement grows, being clear about what we mean by telecommuting is important. It’s the only way companies will know “how to build workplaces and design work practices and decide what technology is needed for support,” Ms. Lister said.
What we do know is that telecommuting isn’t limited to one sector of the population. Men, women, parents, people without children, young and old all participate.
We also know that those who work at home tend to put in longer hours and are often more productive. It works best when a company has developed a plan, including the best technology to use. But we also know it can hurt an employee’s promotion chances and that some combination of working at home and in the office seems ideal.
The first thing to tackle, however, is the slippery meaning of the word “telecommuter.” The most complete definition is someone employed full time at a private, nonprofit or government organization, who works at least half the time at home.
By one estimate, telecommuting has risen 79 percent between 2005 and 2012 and now makes up 2.6 percent of the American work force, or 3.2 million workers, according to statistics from the American Community Survey. That includes full-time employees who work from home for someone other than themselves at least half the time, Ms. Lister said.
But that definition has at times been expanded to include the self-employed; those whose work has to be done outside an office, such as taxi drivers, plumbers, truckers and construction workers; companies where everyone works remotely, so there is no brick-and-mortar office; and those who work at home one day or less a week.
If all of those workers are included, the number of Americans who work remotely can reach as high as 30 percent.
“No one would disagree that the U.S. work force is increasingly mobile,” said the Telework Research Network in a 2011 paper on the state of telecommuting. “But, beyond that broad statement, we know little about the rate of increase in mobility — how often people are out of the office, where they are, and what they’re doing. For that matter, there’s no agreed-upon method of defining who they are.”
Jennifer Glass, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, who has studied teleworking for two decades, said her research shows that much of what managers and professionals call telecommuting occurs after a 40-hour week spent in the office. These people check email, return calls and write reports from home, but in the evenings and weekends.
“Let’s be honest about what we’re talking about,” she said.
So what is agreed upon? For one, that it is not predominantly women who telecommute. Most research says it is at least equal between men and women, while Cali Williams Yost, chief executive of Flex & Strategy, said a telephone survey released last month by her company found that more men than women said they worked remotely.
Kipp Jarecke-Cheng fits right into the typical teleworker profile. He is 44, and for the last year has been director of global public relations and communications for Nurun, a design and technology consulting company based in Montreal. At his old job, he commuted about 45 minutes to Manhattan from his home in Maplewood, N.J., but he chose to telecommute to be closer to his family.
It took some time to get used to working at home, he said. Like many teleworkers, he found that communicating with his colleagues and subordinates was more difficult, at least initially.
“Probably one of the biggest transitions was that in a physical office, you can stroll by and ask questions,” Mr. Jarecke-Cheng said. “Here I have to accumulate a list of questions.”
But it helped tremendously, he said, that after he was hired, Nurun sent him to its national and international offices to meet people face-to-face.
“I’m not just a name on an email,” he said.
David Haddad of New York City began working remotely as chief executive of a nonprofit start-up in 2011. His company is made up solely of remote workers, with no centralized location.
Mr. Haddad likes the flexibility, but there are downsides.
“It’s difficult to keep tabs of what everyone is doing, as well as keep myself motivated to constantly report on my goals,” he said.
While technology can’t replace the human connection, both Mr. Haddad and Mr. Jarecke-Cheng say it helps. Skype is used, as is Google Hangout, which provides a virtual place for people to drop in and “visit.”
Mr. Jarecke-Cheng also communicates with his boss through Voxer, which he described as a combination of a walkie-talkie and text messaging.
For some people, virtual connections are enough, while for others nothing takes the place of being able to chat with a colleague over a cubicle divider.
Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, teamed up with Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, to test some ideas about telecommuting. Over nine months, about 250 workers volunteered for the experiment; half were randomly chosen to work at home and half in the office.
At the end of the experiment, employers found that the home-based employees worked more than office workers — 9.5 percent longer — and were 13 percent more productive. They also were judged to be happier, as quitting rates were cut in half.
But those working at home were also promoted at half the rate of their colleagues working in the office.
“It may be a case, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ ” Professor Bloom said. “Or it might be that you’re not drinking in the bar with your boss. Or it could be you’re not managing your employees as well if you’re not around them.”
Also, by reducing office space, Ctrip saved what would amount to $2,000 an employee annually.
However, at the end of the experiment, 50 percent of those who worked at home asked to come back to the office. They said they were lonely and didn’t like being passed over for promotion.
It does seem, Ms. Lister said, that most people like to have some combination of home and office work.
“That’s the sweet spot,” she said.


Veronica said...

Fantastic post! I enjoyed reading the details on telecommuting. I believe that it has the potential to be the next generation working model, with it's flexibility in working and rising popularity.

Unknown said...

It would have been interesting if you were able to include the strategies they did to keep the remote staff motivated. As you've mentioned, there were several employees who aren't satisfied with the virtual meetings, I'm wondering how did the management resolved this challenge.

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