Growing numbers of Minnesotans are working from home as technology makes telecommuting easier and employers realize that some workers are happier and more productive away from the cubical farm.
While the numbers are still small — about 5 percent of the state’s 2.8 million workers logged in from a remote location at least part of the time in the past year — Minnesota nonetheless is a national leader in a trend that reflects a subtle yet significant change in where and how we work.
“In the old days, managers thought if you were the first one showing up for work and the last one to leave, you must be doing a good job,” said Kathleen Fahnhorst, a consultant with eWorkPlace Minnesota, a state-funded initiative to help Twin Cities employers set up telework programs. “Millennials — well, actually all of us — are balking at that.”
The number of teleworkers has risen more than 50 percent since 2000 among the state’s workforce, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, though advocates of telework believe the numbers are significantly underreported. The growth rate exceeds that of all other commuting categories, including biking, carpooling and public transit.
As part of the eWorkPlace program, University of Minnesota researchers are working with state transportation officials and about 50 employers to measure the impact of teleworking on road congestion and pollution as well as to quantify the bottom-line benefits for the workplace.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around it,” said Frank Douma, who directs the State and Local Policy Program at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “The question is how do you harness that ability to affect the greater good?”
Many Twin Cities workers are now telecommuting informally rather than via prescribed programs, Douma said.
But a recent survey of 110 employees at an unnamed Twin Cities business showed benefits in productivity, job satisfaction and company loyalty among those who worked remotely an average of one or two days a week.
With commutes ranging from 10 minutes to two hours, the average teleworker saved about $94 a week in fuel, vehicle wear-and-tear, lost time and reduced carbon emissions, according to the U. The employer’s annual benefit was valued at $447,000.
“It’s what we need to do to operate our business,” said Amanda Mansfield, human resources manager at Turck Inc., a Plymouth-based multinational corporation that manufactures sensors and other products for factory and process automation. “We need to be fast and flexible. Being slow and steady doesn’t win in this industry.”
Turck has been allowing telework arrangements for two decades for its sales force, engineers, IT workers and others among its U.S. workforce of 2,600. The company signed on with eWorkPlace to open up the program corporatewide and to more deliberately measure its impact. Mansfield considers it a “great success.”
“We’ve seen employees turn around from being mediocre to being the most stellar employees in their groups,” she said. “We’ve seen improvements in mental health as well as financial well-being.”
For Bekah Knock, who works in inside sales at Turck, the ability to work at home for the past three years has been a welcome benefit. She and her family live in Orrock, and the two-hour commute in heavy traffic meant she had to wake up her children at 5 a.m. to get them to day care and then was frazzled by the time she got home at night.
“I’m on a separate room on a whole different floor,” said Knock, who has worked at Turck for a decade and shows up for monthly meetings. “I’m focused on my work. If I have question at the office, I call or e-mail. It’s like I’m there, but I’m not.”
While greater numbers of U.S. workers are telecommuting, it’s much more common among those who are college graduates and whose household income exceeds $75,000, according to Gallup’s annual work and education poll. About 44 percent of telecommuters work in white-collar professions.
Rather than using technology to work after the normal workday or when they have a sick child, the Gallup poll found a significant shift in workers who say they avoid the office altogether, for an average of six days a month. The perception of remote workers as slackers also shows signs of abating, as almost 60 percent of workers say telecommuters are just as productive as those who work at offices, compared with 47 percent when the question was first asked in 1995.
Through eWorkPlace, which launched in 2009 with $3.2 million in state funding, private employers and the public gain $9 in benefits for every $1 of investment just in savings in travel time and vehicle costs alone, according to the University of Minnesota’s research.
Consultants and trainers for eWorkPlace have helped businesses ranging from Aveda to Valspar, along with counties and other government entities, expand flexible workplace initiatives and telework programs. Managers learn such things as how to select the appropriate employees and job categories, as well as how to manage the performance of remote workers. Workers can get help setting up a home office and setting boundaries with family members.
At UnitedHealth Group, more than 35 percent of its U.S. workforce works remotely at least part of the time, said Rich Hughes, chief operating officer of human capital at the Minnetonka-based health care giant. The policy is purely business-driven.
“We’re focused on people getting their work done, and getting their work done well, and making sure our customers are well-served,” Hughes said. “Where they get that work done is a peripheral concern.”
Scott Otto, a director at UnitedHealthcare’s medical foundation for children, has been telecommuting full time for five years. It’s not for everyone, he said.
“You need self-discipline and [to] be driven to provide quality work,” said Otto, who also supervises some remote workers. “You need good time management and dedicated space to establish boundaries when you’re not at an office like a traditional worker.”
Hughes and others say successful telework arrangements require strong management skills and performance-measuring tools.
“Poor performers are the exception, rather than the rule,” he said. “Our work-at-home folks are just as productive, they have as high if not higher levels of engagement, they tend to have lower levels of voluntary turnover. Every metric you might use to objectively measure it, the business performance aspect of work-at-home has been very favorable.”