December 11 2012
Will the Whining Ever Stop? How Telecommuting Helps Us All
It sure does seem like Hillary Clinton was on to something when she suggested American women are a whiny bunch. A new report released this month by the University of Texas at Austin may now give women something else to complain about.
The not-so-terribly-surprising study finds that telecommuting increases the number of hours employees are working and often leads to more stress, as the line between work and home becomes increasingly blurry.
Researchers found that respondents who work from home actually work five to seven hours more than their colleagues who work exclusively in the office. These workers are less likely to follow a traditional 40-hour workweek, and many put in overtime. As a result of this at-a-distance employment, many telecommuting employees find that work increasingly "seeps into home life."
Of some interest is the fact that employees with children are no more likely to work from home than the population as a whole. Rather, as one might predict, workers higher up on the management totem pole have more opportunity to take advantage of telecommuting.
The bottom line, according to the authors, is that telecommuting "is not very helpful in reducing work-family conflicts" -- a conclusion that has helped fuel the already stale conversation, exacerbated by Anne-Marie Slaughter last summer in The Atlantic, of whether or not women can truly have it all.
As the executive director of an organization that benefits from a virtual office and the mother of three young children, I'm acutely aware of the benefits and liabilities of telecommuting. On one hand it's tremendously valuable not to waste time sitting in traffic, to have had the option to nurse a baby while working and to be at home when my children return from school. Similarly, it also poses the challenge of learning to turn off the phone, shut the computer at the end of the day and sometimes just not respond.
But the reality is this is a "problem" most workers -- especially working women who tend to be especially conflicted between work and home -- could only dream of.
In fact, an estimated 3.1 million Americans (not including those who are self-employed) work from home full time -- about 2.5 percent of working Americans. But the numbers are much larger when you consider the number of people who work from home part time. For instance, somewhere between 20-30 million people work from home at least one day a week. While many conjectured that telecommuting would decline during the recession, it actually grew by 11.4% from 2008 to 2011. And many more workers would like to join the pack. In 2009, World at Work's 2009 Telework Trendlines found that 38 percent of workers not currently telecommuting said they had tasks that could be performed at home; with only one-fifth of workers surveyed saying they would never want to work from home. Perhaps even more telling is another survey by the Telework Research Network found that 72 percent of employees would choose a job with a flexible work arrangement over one with no flexibility.
Many women enjoy working outside of the home; others know they need two incomes in order to pay the bills. But these women also may wish to spend time with their children, care for aging parents, or just manage other personal responsibilities with their professional life. And anyone who has tried to balance work and home -- whether by choice or necessity -- knows it's a challenge that requires regular tweaks and adjustments.
But perhaps more important, telecommuting -- which largely benefits professional workers -- has helped refashion workplace culture. More and more companies are offering "nontraditional benefits" like job-sharing opportunities and a compressed workweek, which have the potential to help workers at all levels of the hiring scale.
I'm as guilty as the next gal when it comes to my compulsive impulse to check email and provide on-demand responses to questions. But in the end, this is often a function of the individual -- not the employer. No one in my "office" actually insists that I'm at my computer at 9 o'clock at night. And our staff knows that while I may be unresponsive in the late afternoon so I can care for my children, I'll likely be online as early as 6 a.m.. What's more, I imagine many workers, especially women, would gladly add the extra hour of work each day if it means that they could also have the opportunity to read to their child's class, run a few errands during non-peak shopping hours, or be at home to meet an appliance repair man.
Ultimately, no set of policies or technologies can change the fact that everyone -- men and women -- only have 24 hours in the day. And most of us welcome any flexibility we can take.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, where she telecommutes, so that she can also help raise three children.