Expert Commentary

The hard truth about telecommuting

2012 study from the University of Iowa and the University of Texas at Austin showing the complexity of this evolving work practice and the potential downsides.

Telecommuting has become an increasingly common practice across the American workforce, with many employers allowing their employees to work remotely. Congress even passed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, allowing government employees to work from home under certain circumstances. Although telecommuting can blur the boundary between work and non-work activities, the overall benefits are compelling; it could save employees from making potentially stressful, costly, and environmentally damaging commutes — and allows for greater flexibility. A 2012 study conducted by researchers from the University of Iowa and the University of Texas at Austin notes, “Where the impact of telecommuting has been empirically evaluated, it seems to boost productivity, decrease absenteeism, and increase retention.”

In that study, titled “The Hard Truth About Telecommuting” and published in the Monthly Labor Review journal, the researchers take an in-depth look at trends over time, characteristics of the telecommuting population, and the relationship between telecom­muting and work hours throughout the week. To do this, they analyze data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), a national sample of 12,686 women and men living in the United States and born between 1957 and 1964, as well as information from the Work Schedules and Work at Home supplement to the May 1997, 2001, and 2004 U.S. Census Current Population Survey (CPS).

Key study findings include:

  • Telecommuters worked between five and seven total hours more a week than nontelecommuters and “were more likely to work overtime, regardless of how overtime is de­fined (i.e., as working more than 40, 50, or 60 hours per week).”
  • The rate of telecommuting increased during the early 2000s to 17% (from 10% in the mid-1990s) and then remained constant through the mid-2000s.
  • “The average number of hours spent telecommuting each week is relatively modest, around six hours per week in both the CPS and NLSY samples. No evidence suggests that the number of hours spent telecommuting is increasing over time.”
  • About 70% of those who telecommute are in managerial/professional occupations, and more than half have college or graduate degrees.
  • Among the CPS sample, only 12% of telecommuters were either Black or Hispanic.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, the percentage of parents among telecommuters is only marginally higher than among nontelecommut­ing workers. According to the CPS data, 77% of those who telecommute are parents, while 75% of nontelecommuters are parents.

In sum, there is a general expansion of work hours, and “the labor demand for work-family accommodation does not seem to propel the distribution of telecommuting hours,” the researchers note. Given this, they conclude, “where [telecommuting] has become commonly used, it is not unequivocally helpful in reducing work-family conflicts.”

For additional insight on telecommuting issues, also see:  “Flex-Work: ISO Work-Life Balance,” a three-part series from NPR; “Does Working From Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment,” from Stanford University; and “Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters,” from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Tags: parenting, women and work

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