The proportion of employees in the U.S. who work predominantly from home or another remote location has, over the last decade, more than tripled in many industries, while nearly doubling nationwide among all full-time workers, according to a 2012 report by The Conference Board, a not-for-profit business membership and research association.
Drawing from a number of recent surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau and private sources, The Incredible Disappearing Office: Making Telework Work finds that 84 percent of employees who telework more than once per month are now working remotely at least one day per week. In 2008, that number was 72 percent.
“A confluence of factors, led by the rapid expanse of sophisticated, secure and relatively inexpensive communication technologies, has sparked a quiet revolution in where and how many Americans do their jobs,” explained Amy Lui Abel, director of human capital research at The Conference Board and a co-author of the report.
With advancements in home networking over the last decade, the most dramatic increases in telecommuting were in positions reliant on remote access to technical systems, including:
• Records clerks, 5.5 percent of whom teleworked in 2008-10 (up 516 percent since 2001-03).
• Insurance underwriters (4.5 percent, up 275 percent).
• Lawyers (2.0 percent, up 166 percent).
• Computer software developers (6.1 percent, up 127 percent).
Where employees of nonprofit organizations were most likely to telework in 2000, by 2010 the for-profit sector had taken the lead. Moreover, workplace flexibility appeals both to older workers nearing (or delaying) retirement and to Generation Y new hires for whom a virtual presence and multichannel communication are second nature, the study found.
Steady technical refinement has made teleworking an increasingly attractive business proposition as well. The study notes that IBM’s strategic adoption of telecommuting grew out of the 1970s and the idea of installing access “terminals” in employees’ homes. By 1995, 10,000 IBM employees were mobile, allowing the company to move from a traditional 1:1 workspace-to-worker ratio to 1:4, with annual savings of $74 million.
"With today’s significantly cheaper, lighter-weight technology, organizations without IBM’s expertise can now achieve similar savings," Abel said.
When Home Is Where the Job Is
Based from home, workers gain the flexibility to adjust their schedules as job and personal demands arise. Likewise, teleworkers often report improved performance and higher productivity, with the ability to focus on work priorities free of the stress of distractions and office politics.
At the same time, this autonomy can have distinct drawbacks, the study reports. Teleworkers may feel cut off from their colleagues and less able to influence day-to-day decisions and larger strategic plans. They often lack sufficient professional and administrative support and fear that being “out of sight, out of mind” keeps them from being properly recognized and rewarded by management.
With meetings and group projects more difficult to coordinate, teleworkers also risk resentment from office-based colleagues, who may assume additional responsibilities in their absence. Finally, the same “always on” technology that makes the modern home office possible can mean difficulties establishing boundaries between home and work time, setting the stage for potential overwork and burnout.
Nurturing the Telework Ethic
According to The Conference Board, proactive planning from the top is key to reaping the significant cost savings and worker-satisfaction gains of teleworking while maintaining organizationwide morale and cohesion. Whether opportunities for telework are promoted across the organization, reserved for the best-performing employees or used to attract standout applicants from a wider talent pool (such as the differently abled, semi-retired experts and parents with young children), leaders must establish formal, transparent guidelines if the “virtual office” is to be a real success.
“Research concurs that the dual linchpins of effective teleworking are strong management and robust IT,” explained study co-author Gad Levanon, director of macroeconomic research at The Conference Board. “With support from HR, managers at all levels must make the ‘mental shift’ to trusting that employees are getting the job done without seeing them every day—and to have the strength to act decisively when they’re not. On the technology side, the right hardware and software choices backed up by abundant support staff can make the difference between a seamless transition and hundreds or thousands of man-hours lost to bugs and faulty connections.”
From these prerequisites, The Incredible Disappearing Office: Making Telework Work offers best practices including:
• Building strong team relationships that bring together teleworkers and others.
• Building a strong community of teleworkers that can share experiences and offer advice online or in person.
• Promoting an organizational culture that recognizes the needs and talents of teleworkers.
• Growing the technical literacy of managers so they buy into advantages of some employees working remotely and can identify potential telework opportunities.
• Refining performance and reward systems to maximize individual initiative and minimize “slacking off” and trust issues.
• Creating established no-meeting times or “isolation zones” to ease information overload for all employees.
• Implementing flexible policies tailored to family needs for retaining talented workers.
• Integrating support for traveling workers as part of a larger teleworking program.
• Broadening recruitment to attract talent especially well-served by telework.
Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Make a Case for Workplace Flex, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, June 2012
Using Workplace Flexibility as a Talent Strategy, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, May 2012
SHRM Online Benefits Discipline
SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page