Most execs say telecommuting could hold back career

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 23, 2007
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Sixty-one percent of more than 1,300 executives from 71 countries believe workers who telecommute have a lesser chance of advancing in their career, even though more than one-third of those executives noted that telecommuters are more productive than workers in traditional office settings.

That’s the word from Futurestep, a Korn/Ferry International outsourced recruiting subsidiary, which conducted the Trends@Work Quiz in October and November 2006.

Although the majority say telecommuting may hurt a worker’s career advancement:

  • 42 percent of 1,730 executives said telecommuters were as productive as workers in traditional settings, and 36 percent said they were more productive. Only 22 percent said they were less productive than workers in traditional settings.
  • 77 percent of 2,034 executives said they would “probably” or “definitely” consider a job in which they could telecommute regularly, and 16 percent they might consider such a job.
  • 66 percent of 1,944 executives said taking a sabbatical or extended break was “extremely” or “somewhat” beneficial to a person’s career.
  • Asked to rate the type of flexible work arrangements they found most attractive, 46 percent of 1,900 executives put flexible hours at the top, followed by working from home (22 percent).

While telecommuters may be working as hard or harder than those on site, the perception may be that they are efficient “worker bees” not interested in advancement, suggested life and career coach Annemarie Segaric, who is based in New York City.

“An employee who is not as productive as a telecommuter … [but] is available for whatever comes up at the moment is more likely to be put on the fast track simply because they’re visible,” she told HR News.

“Getting promoted, advancing yourself in the workplace, you need to be able to produce and show you’re adding value and have the people around you see that value,” she said.

“The people that I know who are eager to advance their career, they are working like crazy, they are working a lot. … They’re working full-time in the office, and when they’re not in the office their phone’s ringing, their cell phone’s going off. They’re working on the holidays.”

Companies today want workers who ultimately advance to be in-house where “they can learn what’s happening and they can be part of the growth strategy of the company,” Futurestep CEO Robert McNabb noted, but said he believes those companies will need to re-think that as they move into the 21st century.

“I do think corporations will change in the future. I think corporations will have to consider this whole issue regarding telecommuters” as there is a greater focus on mobility and flexibility to adjust to a predicted labor shortage, he told HR News.

“Companies really need to re-think what the workforce of the 21st century looks like and what is the DNA of that workforce.”

Not all workers care passionately about advancing their careers. Some would rather sacrifice some career advancement now so they can spend time at home with children or parents for whom they are caring, Segaric noted, and others “are not so sure they like their jobs in the first place” so advancement is not a priority.

A recent online poll found that nearly half of more than 11,000 people surveyed are thinking about changing jobs soon, and Segaric said many of her clients prefer telecommuting “because they are not so sure they like their jobs in the first place.”

“People are just dissatisfied with the way work as a whole is structured. It’s not whether work should be four days a week or five days a week or seven days a week. It’s the mentality where work is separate from your personal life” when in fact it often intersects, she said.

A high-rated perk

Telecommuting is an option many workers would like to have, according to a CNN report on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For that noted it is high on the wish lists of the nearly 5,700 workers surveyed.

The question was one of many on the poll created as part of CNN’s best companies coverage, and telecommuting is a perk shared by 82 companies named to the “100 best” list.

“Smart employers know that flexible working conditions can be an effective means to creating a productive workforce,” McNabb said in a press release.

“Often when employers offer the option of flexible hours and telecommuting, they help employees maintain balance in other parts of their lives, which in turn fosters loyalty, satisfaction and retention.”

For organizations considering allowing workers, or some workers, to have the option to telecommute, knowing their workforce demographics is an important consideration, if findings from a recent survey sponsored by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) are an indication.

While where a person works, the kind of job he or she holds, and length of commute are obvious, significant factors that affect whether a worker telecommutes, the SCAG study found that a worker is more likely to telecommute if he or she is over 30, is Caucasian, has a college degree, has at least one other adult in the household, and works for an employer with a formal telecommuting program.

Senior and middle managers are more likely to telecommute, as are people with jobs in architecture, sales and engineering, according the findings based on a 2002 survey of more than 5,000 residents of southern California.

Not strong factors: the worker’s gender, the presence of children age 6 to 17 in the home, and length of tenure, according to the paper What Drives Telecommuting? The Relative Impact of Worker Demographics, Employer Characteristics, and Job Types released in October 2006.

Workers at organizations with 25 to 250 employees are less likely to telecommute than those at small (less than 25 employees) and large organizations (more than 250 employees), it found.

The survey separated home-based business workers from true telecommuters, and it asked respondents where they worked every day—at home; at a telework center; at an employer’s satellite office; at a client or customer site; out of town; or in a car, bus, train, plane or some other form of transportation.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at

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