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The Myth of Telecommuting

Written by Gary North on March 5, 2013

The vast majority of Americans drive to the office and then drive home. They do not telecommute. Working at home by means of the Internet is not a popular option.

Over 80% of Americans do not work at home part time. It turns out that most of the hours worked by telecommuting are put in by upper managers, who in fact are working longer hours. It’s really just unpaid overtime.

The recent flap at Yahoo, where the new CEO has banned telecommuting, is basically irrelevant. Hardly anyone had been taking advantage of the option.

In a June 2012 Monthly Labor Review article, “The hard truth about telecommuting,” we see this chart.

telecommuting

The authors drew a conclusion.

OUR ANALYSIS OF TELECOMMUTING has yielded several surprising findings. Though more and more employers claim to be offering flexible work options, the proportion of workers who telecommute has been essentially flat over the mid-1990s to mid-2000s and is no larger among younger cohorts of workers than older cohorts. Moreover, the average number of hours spent telecommuting each week is relatively modest, around 6 hours per week in both the CPS [Current Population Studies] and NLSY [National Longitudinal Studies of Youth] samples. No evidence suggests that the number of hours spent telecommuting is increasing over time.

It is clear why most companies do not adopt telecommuting. Their employees prefer to drive to work. If they did not, competing firms could hire employees for less money by allowing them to telecommute.

The average drive time in the USA is 25 minutes each way. That’s good for talk radio. Why it is good for employees is a mystery to me. I have either worked at home or driven no more than 10 minutes each way since 1977.

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22 thoughts on “The Myth of Telecommuting

  1. I would say that any survey of Internet-related habits that has 2004 as its ending date isn't telling us anything relevant about what's happening now. I can say, working at an 1,800-person, nation-wide engineering firm, that telecommuting has really only taken off in the past 2 or 3 years, with team video conferencing software being cheap, easy and reliable enough to make this practical. I lead a team of 16 business analysts, software and database developers and all of us work from home 60-100% of the time (I am entirely working from home now). The ability to instantly have a face to face video call at $0 cost to the company (everything is mediated over the Internet) has made this a practical reality. I consider it an enormous benefit and now can't imaging going to work for a company that makes me drive to an office. We support a 70-office firm anyway, so being in one particular office full-time doesn't provide the company with any benefit.

  2. Lucky3511 says:

    The Author of this post is a lucky person. Living in New York Area over the last thirty years, my commute has been between 90 minutes and three hours, except when it snowed and it took 7 hours. I grabbed every opportunity to Telecommute. did not happen enough. We were hi tech staff and many of my colleagues thoughout my career had longer commutes than I.
    I would suggest that the author stuck to subects he know something about.

  3. proveritas says:

    Telecommuting is a big deal in the SF Bay Area, home to the largest percentage of "Mega-Commuters" in the country. A decade ago, telecommuting was allowed due to vast competition for talent. No longer.

    see: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_227

  4. The entire team I work with telecommutes full time. My manager is in Phoenix, AZ and I am in Atlanta, GA. Our office is in Alpharetta, GA which would be a two hour plus commute twice a day.

  5. A Murricun says:

    I first telecommuted in 1983-84. 4 days at home with dial-up access the client paid for, one day at the office (56 miles one way, mostly rural interstate), went on Thursday because Arthur Treacher’s had a special, which a half-dozen or so of us enjoyed. I’ve also commuted as much as 67 miles one way, and 30 or 35 miles was not unusual. These days, it’s strictly freelancing from home. The technology has made physical travel for business purposes obsolete.

    The Yahoo thing is entirely different. It’s about control and about thinning the ranks. It’s a brutal way of downsizing. The more Y! publicly talks about touchy-feely stuff, the more you can believe it’s nothing but an economic move. Mayer is likely to last less than three years before moving on to another CEO job. Long enough to look good, but not so long that what went around comes around.

  6. My wife works as an analyst for one of the largest companies in the world. Due to closing of a regional office where she worked, she started to work from home over 7 years ago and found that she was far more productive working from a home office without all of the normal office distractions found in a traditional office. As a result, the division that she works in has now encouraged their staff to telecommute one or two days a week and found that overall production increased and there was far greater job satisfaction. There are benefits for both the company and the employee. Cost savings to the company for lighting, heat, A/C, cleaning, etc. For the employee, especially those with long commutes, a cost saving on transportation and meals that would normally be eaten out. Granted, telecommuting doesn't work for everyone, butwith the availability of video conferencing, Web X, and various other mobile means of communicating, I can see it becoming more of the norm.

  7. As others have pointed out this research is quite dated. The fact is that there are many companies who support telecommuting on a large-scale. I know because I happen to work for one of them. I only go into the office a couple days a month, and I’ve had this arrangement for well over two years.

  8. I've been 100% virtual for the last five years. I live in a place with one of the lower cost-of-livings in the country, but make a nice corporate salary. Unfortunately, my internet options are limited, and I just barely have high-speed, so no video-conferencing. Phone conferences have been just fine, though. Since my work is cyclical based on the financial quarter, I sometimes work 20 hours and report 40, sometimes work 60 and get paid for 40. I roll out of bed about 8am and can be at work immediately, since I work in an easy chair in my living room. It's not at all uncommon for me to be working at midnight, too, depending on the load. You do have to be pretty self-directed to make it work, of course.

  9. SmallTown says:

    "I have either worked at home or driven no more than 10 minutes each way since 1977."

    How about when you were living in your Y2K bunker in Arkansas 14 years ago?

  10. As a former telecommuter turned business owner, I can say exactly why more employees don't telecommute. First, most companies and most jobs are simply not set up to handle off site workers. This is changing slowly. And it usually involves smaller companies ( even virtual companies) wishing to keep down overhead costs.

    Second, whether appreciated or not, we are in an extended period of economic uncertainty where labor is plentiful. Indeed large swaths of the work force are easily replaceable with others who are eager to do their jobs for less pay. Employees know this. Unless you’re working in a virtual situation where many, if not all of the staff are off site, working from home reduces face time with your superiors. Out of site is out of mind. Whether true for each situation or not, it is much easier to think about letting go of someone who is hardly around than someone you see every day.

    When you are face to face you are likely to have conversations that lead to bonding. Off site employees still get the work done but much more likely to interact with their boss on only work-related matters. Therefore there’ll be less ordinary, familial bonding.

    Perception is reality.

  11. It has been our experience that the nitty gritty of this is that management in all too many companies still do not trust people to do honest work when they are not on-site, despite research to the contrary. My husband talked his employer into letting him telecommute full-time, which has allowed us to move to where we have long wanted to live (but hadn't been able to, due to lack of available jobs), rather than living in a far more expensive place where we really did not want to be. However, my husband doesn't actually like the specific job he's doing that much and would like to change. He has interviewed for a job for which he seems to be the ONLY available person with the needed skill set (he's an I/T guy, and works in a somewhat odd niche of the sector)…but the job is currently sitting unfilled, because the management is worried that someone who telecommutes would do "bad things" with their intellectual property. This despite the fact that we even carry liability insurance against such things.

    Larger-scale telecommuting could do much to even out the economy and cost of living across the country. At the very least, it could go a long way toward relieving housing pressure in Silicon Valley, and let a lot of people escape the CA tax and legal climate, while still making CA salaries. (which is what we have done–and a Silly Valley salary goes literally twice as far in Montana as it does in San Jose! AND we get to enjoy the substantial increase in individual freedom and the rural life!)

  12. Disciple Deb says:

    In Houston I've been able to telecommute in cases of family crises (emergencies, surgery) and following my own recent foot surgery (couldn't legally drive for 2 months). And it enables me to provide tech support/customer service over the weekend if need be. But I really don't like to work from home, it's lonely, plus my home desk doesn't give me nearly as much "elbow room" as my office desk. My normal commute is 60 minutes each way, which is great for listening to Dr Chuck Swindoll or Dr Tony Evans in the morning, and to conservative talk radio anytime!

  13. I work from home 4 out of 5 days a week and a lot of my co-workers work at home 5 days a week. It it true that a number of years ago telecommuting was just unpaid overtime, but now it' my normal mode of work. I work at a software company and mine isn't the only one that treats employees like this.

    It would not surprise me to find that many of the employees at Yahoo, who (as someone pointed out) work in the Bay area with bad traffic, used to telecommute befort this change.

  14. A Murricun says:

    Many managers cannot effectively supervise workers 2 cubicles away, much less telecommuters. So they have no idea whether their telecommuters are delivering value for their salaries.

    Telecommuters, to be effective, must have great self-discipline. When they do, this alone intimidates and aggravates supervisors who have little or none.

    Yes, it is true that the current supply/demand ratio favors employers’ having their way with employees. What goes around, comes around. Every time someone gets shafted, they learn a new trick to avoid. And a new counter.

  15. I saw the possibilities of telecommuting many years ago. I began putting together all the necessary pieces, preparing relentlessly. I started telecommuting over 4 years ago and would not even consider joining the "rat race" again. Management and I have instant access to each other and they can monitor my work in real time. Our customers which are anywhere in North America could not receive better support if I wasn't sitting at home in my slippers. A win-win solution for everyone involved.

  16. ThePriceOfFreedom says:

    The Y2K Scare should be viewed as a foreshadowing of the bad things in store for all of us right now.

    Look at all the ways government ("that great fictitious entity by which everyone expects to live at the expense of everyone else") continues to encroach on citizen's rights with its endless attempts to spy on us and to punish us for nothing.

    The Y2K Scare should have taught us to anticipate problems and to respond with creative countermeasures – not just laugh and go to sleep believing we're safe.

  17. I’ve lived in NYC for 35 years, and never had a one-way commute over one hour. If snow would have extended my commute to seven hours, I’d have taken the day off.

  18. Interesting insight!

  19. Is this amount of driving / riding – WORTH any amount of money ?
    Are you "farther ahead," than where you started from 30 years ago, or, are you just (barely) 'maintaining' your expenses and lifestyle at the same level as others who don't have the same commuting or living expenses in other parts of the country ?
    Commute less / Spend less / Make less – but still HAVE MORE – TIME – FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR FAMILY to do the important things in life that get wasted sitting in endless traffic, waiting to get TO a "high" paying job !
    You may want to give that some thought…….

  20. Bill Jones says:

    ” It turns out that most of the hours worked by telecommuting are put in by upper managers, who in fact are working longer hours. It’s really just unpaid overtime.”

    “Upper Managers” of course, never got paid overtime.

  21. karel Eekels says:

    Productivity, output and performance of an employee or associate can be measured and is verifiable and does not require an associate worker to report for duty on a daily basis by sitting behind a desk at an office as long as his or her goods & services make a contribution whereby the company benefits from. Private sector companies operating in a highly competitive environment today have no control over sales results but they have and can (and are well advised) get a handle on how to control costs and expenditures associated with making a sale/transaction, and this at the election of management.

  22. For my last 5 years before retiring I averaged about 2 days per week working from home. It was great. I was an Information Technology (IT) professional and I actually spent more time working than the time I would have spent at the office + travel time both ways. But, I didn't mind because I was not playing in the traffic for 2 hours of the day. If I not been allowed to work from home I would have quit and found employeement elsewhere.