Teleworking appears to be regaining momentum in North America after several years of “flat line growth,” according to a recent report published by the Telework Research Network.
The report, titled The State of Telework in the U.S: How Individuals, Business, and Government Benefit, analyzes data from the U.S. Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics and from surveys conducted by pollsters and universities. In addition, the research network has gathered information from Canada and the United Kingdom to get a clearer picture of the trends in telework.
The report found that teleworking in the U.S. lags behind both Britain and Canada when considering the overall percentage of people in the workforce who work primarily from home. According to the latest statistics, 2.3 percent of the U.S. workforce or roughly 3 million people telecommute on a regular basis (at least two days per week). The percentage of workers in the United Kingdom who telecommute regularly is 5.7 percent. The percentage of Canadian workers falls in between the U.S. and the U.K. with roughly 3.2 percent of the workforce telecommuting regularly.
Although telework appears to have gained more acceptance in Britain when compared to the U.S. and Canada, the U.K. is ranked 12th among countries in the European Union for the percentage of workers who telecommute regularly. Europe’s technology infrastructure combined with population density and higher costs for energy are key factors in the higher penetration and use of teleworking policies, sources say.
The most recent statistics are a slight increase from 2008 and 2009; still, analysts said, the growth shows that teleworking is gaining more acceptance among employers and employees alike.
“Generally, we are seeing ad hoc telework usage and policies from employers in the U.S. and Canada when the need and requests arise,” said Kate Lister, president of the Telework Research Network.
Attitude Adjustments Needed
The focus of most employers in North America and Europe in 2006 and prior to the economic downturn was on how to retain the best workers. So, many employers concentrated on retention techniques, including work/life benefits and programs, according to Lister. Flexible scheduling and telework were key elements of work/life programs and policies and therefore gained some attention and acceptance from employers.
Since 2006, growth in teleworking in the U.S. and Canada has remained flat, but recently interest has shifted away from downsizing and rightsizing and employers are again looking at ways to retain their best and most experienced workers. While research shows that telework can be a very effective way to improve employee retention, improve productivity and cut overhead costs (real estate, office equipment, utilities etc.), a general negative attitude of managers toward flexible work arrangements is keeping the penetration and acceptance of telework policies low in the U.S.
“The reality is that managers just don’t trust their employees to work untethered. And this isn’t going to change until companies start measuring performance based on performance, rather than the number of hours someone puts in at the office,” said Lister. “Management experts have been telling us for years that results-based management is the key to maximizing employee potential and engagement and that’s true whether employees are 100 feet or 100 miles away.”
While workshifting (where anywhere with Internet access can be an office) and telework usage have gained more acceptance, especially in Europe, the penetration and acceptance in other countries varies widely depending on a country’s religious, cultural and economic circumstances.
In developed Islamic countries, such as Iran and Turkey, telework is a way to create work for women but keep them away from traditional male-dominated workplaces and limit “gender-mixing” according to Lister.
African nations have been exploring ways to expand job opportunities through telework and workshifting. The focus of businesses looking to operate in Africa has been to improve the technological infrastructure. In Japan, one of the most technologically advanced countries, telework has been slow to take hold, largely due to Japanese attitudes involving work/life issues and a strong emphasis on spending time in the office.
Forced to Change
“Foreign-affiliated multinational corporations have more liberal telecommuting policies than Japan-based companies largely because of their global policies on this matter,” said Jun Kabigting, chief community officer for the Japan HR Society. “Nevertheless, as a result of the March  earthquake and tsunami, companies have started to change their work rules to accommodate telecommuting or flextime work schedules as the need arises. Right after the earthquake, companies instructed their employees to work at home until further advised or safe to do so and only skeleton workforces were allowed on site.”
In addition, Kabigting said the nuclear disaster after the tsunami helped to change the attitudes of Japanese employers and increased the use of telecommuting programs and policies.
“Even now when there is a serious power shortage in the Tokyo area brought about by the closure of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant and other preventive shutdowns of nuclear plants,” he said, “companies are becoming more open-minded and are allowing their employees to work at home to reduce power consumption at the office.”
That natural disaster has taught employers in Japan that telecommuting can help them maintain productivity and remain operational. As the situation returns to normal in Japan, Kabigting and others familiar with the issue believe these lessons have changed attitudes and should help telecommuting gain wider acceptance.
Exact statistics on teleworking in India are not as readily available. Some experts estimate the percentage of teleworkers is comparable to North America—if not slightly higher. A report published by AVTAR I-WIN, a career service for Indian women, found that telework and flexible work arrangements are being sought by women as they look for ways to remain in the workforce.
According to the report’s authors, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member Saundarya Rajesh and Karthik Ekambaram, women in India are pursuing more ad hoc telework or workshifting arrangements and that the practice may be more widespread than first thought. Culture and attitudes among Indian employers has leaned toward “presenteeism,” the report said because managers feel they can control their employees’ output and performance better in the office rather than away from it.
However, the advent of improved technology in India and the large influx of outsourced high-tech jobs have changed those attitudes. In some ways, outsourcing customer service and call center jobs to India showed employers that telecommuting actually works and works well, experts interviewed for this article agreed.
India’s vastly improved technology infrastructure has created many more job opportunities for women who choose to stay at home and remain the primary caregiver for children and aging parents. The technological advances have opened up opportunities to people who live in remote and isolated areas.
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.