“If only I could telecommute!” mutters the corporate employee who just spent an hour stuck in highway traffic. “My life would be so much better!”
Or, at least, that’s what people fantasize. According to research, 77 percent of employees believe that working at home would be the best version of their jobs and that it’s only grumpy bosses who prevent them from doing so.
But, it turns out, businesses are more open to remote work these days. Telecommuting reluctance often comes from the employees themselves, who worry that they will miss out on opportunities to collaborate in office environments and other in-office benefits. This contradiction flies in the face of the notion that all employees want to eschew the cubicle in favor of their homes.
A recent Robert Half report studied attitudes and conditions around telecommuting. The results show that few managers object to a remote workforce. However, the same report has a seemingly opposing finding when it comes to the workers themselves: While people are attracted to jobs that allow remote work, they have significant reservations about actually taking those jobs. This shows a discrepancy between the dream and actuality, which means the fear of the negatives is a significant detractor from taking remote jobs. If nothing else, anyone who does take a job with telecommuting benefits needs to prepare for doing so.
The perception of nirvana
Without question, a lot of people want to work remotely. “Remote/work from home” was the fourth most popular job search term last year, according to FlexJobs, a remote job marketplace that compiled recent data from multiple sources. The company expects one-third of employees to work from home in 10 years, even though today, only 2.9 percent of the total U.S. workforce works from home at least half the time.
The ability to work at home is appealing for a lot of reasons. You are in charge of your own daily routine. Telecommuting can seem like the ultimate freedom: rolling out of bed in the morning, pouring your coffee, checking email, and getting right to work, in whatever you happen to be wearing. You probably are not being monitored every minute.
Telecommuting has its fans within businesses, too. Employers can—and do—point to a long list of business benefits they gain from moving employees outside office walls, which is one reason flexible work locations are a top job negotiation carrot. Some organizations provide incentives to encourage the workforce to take advantage of the option. In its review of more than 4,000 studies, Global Workplace Analytics found more than 20 corporate benefit categories, including obvious ones such as saving money on building expenses. Among the less-expected findings are increased employee empowerment, reduced potential for discrimination, reduced attrition, and improved employee satisfaction. Companies including Best Buy, Dow Chemical, and British Telecom report that their teleworkers are 35 to 40 percent more productive than those in the office, according to Global Workplace Analytics’ research.
The desire for remote work has an age correlation: Younger people are more interested in location flexibility. Eighty-six percent of job seekers between the ages of 18 to 34 say they would more positively consider a job offer that includes the option to work off-site at least part time. But a slightly smaller percentage (65 percent) of workers who are older than 55 find the option attractive.
Why you are reluctant to work from home
Those who can manage their daily routine effectively without supervision can make a remote option work. But it isn’t for everyone.
Workers themselves are aware of the reasons not to leave the office—starting with distractions. According to Global Workplace Analytics, while businesses report losses of a staggering $600 billion each year in office workplace distractions, being distracted by everyday issues at home is at the top of the list of reasons why employees are reluctant to work from home, according to the Robert Half report cited earlier. So workers face the issue of being distracted regardless of whether they work at home or in an office situation.
A long-held belief about telecommuting is that managers don’t trust their employees to pay attention to work unless the workers are under their gimlet eye. It turns out that the assumption is not true: 75 percent of managers say they have confidence their workers put in the time and effort even when working remotely, the Robert Half research shows.
Or they trust employees up to a point: A third of the managers hedged their confidence by saying they want to see workers during the day. Whether that means having webcam access during conference calls or using time-tracking software on employees’ computers is unclear.
But that same lack of full trust is mirrored by employees’ own opinions. Robert Half reports that workers worry they will abuse the benefits of being remote because of the potential distractions that are seemingly more present around the house.
Potential home workers also fear isolation. In addition to the loss of office camaraderie, they fear being out of sight, out of mind, particularly when it comes to career advancement, according to Robert Half. Being invisible to supervisors on a daily basis, they surmise, can mean their contributions go unnoticed and won’t get them the recognition they need for their next career move.
That same desire to be part of the group shows up in workers’ preferences in work environment overall. Most of us, even in IT, are social people. According to the Robert Half report, 73 percent of workers prefer to collaborate in groups in an office. That is in stark contrast to the 12 percent who prefer off-site virtual collaboration and the 5 percent who prefer to work autonomously off-site.
That may or may not be a barrier to telecommuting adoption, because several employers expect staff to work in the office a few days a week; the in-person collaboration can occur at that time. According to Global Research’s report, while employees report their preference is for full-time, work-from-anywhere positions, only 3.5 percent of telecommute jobs offer that option.
Not all remote jobs are what you expect
Every employer has its own set of expectations and rules regarding exactly how employees should conduct themselves when working remotely. Workers say they are looking for better work-life balance, which they intuitively believe can be achieved by more access to their personal environment. But workers mixing home and work can lead to burnout and overwork.
Or, simply, it can lead to more productive hours worked. Per Global Workplace Analytics, AT&T’s remote staff works five more hours per week than their office counterparts. That may be because workers are concerned that their fellow remote workers and their supervisors assume 24/7 availability, which leads to demands beyond work hours. Some employees complain that emails while commuting should count as work.
Employees want to work from home but have significant reservations about how their jobs will be affected by being out of the office and less visible. At the same time, managers have less concern about their employees working outside the office. Employees who want more control over their work-life balance should talk with their supervisors and are likely to find more acceptance of the concept than they might have expected.
The telecommuting conundrum: Lessons for leaders
- The majority (77 percent) of employees say they would take a job that allows telecommuting at least some of the time.
- Most managers (75 percent) say they are open to their employees telecommuting at least part of the time.
- Most workers (73 percent) would still prefer to work together in groups rather than independently away from the office.