Surprise! Telecommuting Isn’t So Great for Employees…

The June Monthly Labor Review published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Department of Labor) had an interesting article about the surprising impacts of telecommuting in the U.S. workforce.  Surprising because the data analysis show that telecommuting hasn’t taken hold to any strong degree in the U.S.  And where it has taken hold, the impact isn’t positive:   from an employee perspective, the data suggest that the impact of telecommuting is negative from a work/life integration view!

Wait.  What? Isn’t telecommuting the perk that allows employees more flexibility and balance between work and personal life?  Well, no.  The data suggest not so much.

The Hard Truth About Telecommuting, by Noonan and Glass, says:  “telecommuting appears, instead, to have become instrumental in the general expansion of work hours, facilitating workers’ needs for additional work time beyond the standard workweek and/or the ability of employers to increase or intensify work demands among their salaried employees.”

The average number of hours worked per week from home by telecommuters is small.  And hasn’t been growing to any great degree since the mid-1990’s.  What is interesting is that most of telecommuting hours are overtime hours – they aren’t replacing office hours, they appear to be growing overtime hours.  So while more and more employers tout their “work-flex” telecommuting policies, the percentage of workers who telecommute isn’t growing.

Also surprising, is that younger workers are not telecommuting any more often than more mature workers and parents aren’t telecommuting more than the population as a whole!

The big value of telecommuting, according to this report, appears to accrue to a very few higher level professional employees.  For the rest, it actually appears to encourage longer work weeks.  As the report surmises, being available to telecommute may actually allow employers to increase expectation for work availability during evenings and weekends encouraging longer workdays and workweeks – the exact opposite of the intent.

It might be interesting to take a look at your organization’s use of telecommuting and determine whether this “flexible” approach is creating more or less stress, more or the same hours, more or the same productivity – and if it’s being utilized effectively.  In other words, is it an ineffective perk that feels good to offer and merely looks great on the “best” lists or is it a productivity and engagement tool that is actually producing value for your workforce?

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8 Comments

Filed under Bureau of Labor Statistics, China Gorman, Engagement, HR Data, Monthly Labor Review, Telecommuting, U.S. Department of Labor

8 responses to “Surprise! Telecommuting Isn’t So Great for Employees…

  1. Michael Tobin

    Hi China, I am running a telecommuting program at my company and I do agree that I have to measure the productivity changes. The question is “how”. My friend suggests rescuetime, timedoctor, icedeep worktracker to my. Are you familiar with these softwares? any preference? thanks.

  2. Not sure where to start …

    I know academic work takes time to get published, but the datasets these sociologists are using cover the period 1997 – 2004.

    The rest is absolutely nothing surprising for the times – early adopters tend to be male, managerial and professional, college educated etc -
    Being older, of higher status in their jobs and no doubt wealthier, they also report working longer hours.
    This is a normal finding, and the sociologists writing the report are confusing the impact of telecommuting with a normal correlation that relates to socio-occupational status.

    The data used is not really fit for purpose – it provides very limited insight into telecommuting at all. There’s signs of an evident hobby-horse that wants to make a point about home-based workig and work intensification.

    Overall it’s a disappointing, outdated and misleading bit of work that fails to penetrate to any depth into the complex phenomenon of remote working.

    Probably the two worst aspects are 1) a failure to acknowledge the possible gaps and alternative interpretations and 2) a failure to refer to any of dozens much more up-to-date studies that could have helped to contextualise their interpretation …

    • Hi Andy: I appreciate your comments. I understood that the data was old — but the trends were so consistent that it warranted a look. Our BLS pumps out tons of data — and some of it is actually useful. Others, not so much. I’m sure there will be more and more current analyses soon, but as you point out, this kind of academic research takes time. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. China, you find the most interesting, data-based insights about today’s workplace – flexibility can push some people to be more accountable and on the employer side can push employers to expect more in return for flexiblity. Looks like the new work world needs some updated employee-employer psychological contracts.

    • Hi Terri: You know it’s not hard to find these data points. They’re everywhere. I guess that’s my mission here — to bring some of the more interesting findings to light and share them. This was a surprise, though!

  5. marenhogan

    Yes, one should definitely take a look at telecommuting and see if it works not just for the organization but for the employees for whom it is being implemented. While I hate to respond to a study with anecdotal evidence, I feel that there’s a big fat hole in this data. All of the inputs ring true (hours worked tend to be longer and stress is higher) but there are additional factors to consider (just like when Emps are at work). How much is being delivered in that time? What are they doing in the “regular” hours (laundry, picking up kids from school, taking a long lunch) to push additional work to beyond the typical 40? Are they experiencing stress around the time they begin working from home (there is a serious adjustment period for everyone I know) or is this measured at 12 or 18 months out?

    It would be good to see data from the last 9 years, since we’ve had such an explosion in tech making all this even more possible…thanks for posting!

    • Hi Maren: great points. The data are pretty interesting — take a look at the article. It’s not very long. But it follows data from the mid-’90′s through the mid-2000′s. I agree that more data from the last several years would be helpful.

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