Telecommuting offers public, private benefits.
In the last three decades, technology's remaking of the workplace has been broad and deep, although it has never fulfilled its promise of the "paperless office." Instead, technology has enabled offices to consume more paper than ever. But creeping forward in fits and starts has been technology's most alluring workplace advance: telecommuting. Each year, the officeless office seems to take two steps forward and one step back.
The Journal of Applied Psychology in November reported on the many steps forward taken by telecommuting employees. In a survey of 46 studies looking at 12,883 employees, the authors found that telecommuting improved job satisfaction, performance, turnover and stress, and did not harm career prospects. Telecommuting more than half-time did harm relationships with coworkers, but not with supervisors.
In the one-step-back department was a report in November by a technology trade publication that AT&T, once a model of telecommuting success, was asking some workers to return to traditional AT&T offices. At one time, a third of AT&T's managers worked full-time from a virtual office, and another 40 percent split time between the office and home. The company had bragged of improved productivity and savings of $30 million a year in real estate costs.
The publication Network World said that AT&T's rollback of liberal teleworking policies was the result of reconciling human resources policies at the company in the wake of acquisitions. Still, to have a telecommunications company retreat from telecommuting appears to violate the mantra that a technology company should "eat its own dog food."
Locally, 4.5 percent of workers in the Twin Cities metro area work at home, according to the Census Bureau, but if you subtract the self-employed, that falls to 2.1 percent of the 1.7 million workers in the area. Those figures are in line with national averages. But when it comes to the paycheck, Minnesotans working from home seem to take a hit relative to their office-bound peers. Minnesota workers in general rank ninth in median earnings relative to workers in other states, but Minnesotans who work at home rank 22nd in median earnings, according to the Census Bureau.
Putting aside the private benefits and drawbacks, telecommuting is a clear winner from a public policy standpoint. Every worker at home is one fewer worker burdening the roads and public transportation systems. Designing public policies and infrastructure to increase the at-home workforce can have both public and private benefits.