More American employees are working from home, and they are doing so for longer periods.
Roughly a quarter of all full-time American workers did some or all of their work remotely, according to the latest federal data.
The figure represents a substantial increase over estimates from previous years – a shift that meets the demands of many job seekers.
In the 1980s, the state of California commissioned a study on the potential costs and benefits of expanding telework among state employees.
The final report, published in 1990, found that remote work “enhances the quality of work-life for telecommuters, including those with disabilities.”
Remote workers are happy and productive, say studies.
Dozens of other studies have found that remote workers are happy and productive.
Taken as a whole, they show remote work, where feasible, has a clear pattern of benefits for both workers and the firms that employ them.
Yet even in industries where the practice is popular, companies have struggled with how much to embrace remote work.
The Information Highway vs. the Freeway
While the idea of remote work goes back about 50 years, it is only recently that the potential for telework on a mass scale truly took off. And that is because of the internet.
Around 50 percent of US adults had internet access in the year 2000. That number had jumped to more than 75 percent by the year 2010.
The statistic presently hovers around 90 percent, according to data gathered by the Pew Research Center.
The faster and more extensive information highway allows remote employees to avoid the slow slog of the daily commute, which nobody enjoys. And every car off the road is a step toward mitigating the climate crisis.
Dell Inc. prides itself on encouraging remote work. In 2016, the company published a report describing its telecommuting policy as a driver of sustainability efforts for the firm.
“Dell work-from-home programs mitigate approximately 1.15 metric tonnes of CO2e per employee per year,” the report said.
Offering Remote Work as a Perk
The US national unemployment rate currently stands at 3.4 percent. Among the 51 largest US metropolitan areas, the highest jobless rate in December still stood at only 4.7 percent.
When unemployment is low, workers have options, and employers start competing with everything they have to offer to draw good candidates.
“The advantages (of telework) are many,” says Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “It’s a good thing for several reasons from the employer’s perspective in a very tight labor market.”
Offering remote work is something that can distinguish a brand in the employment market, he adds. This is particularly true for companies trying to attract younger talent.
Cost Cutting and Inclusive Employment
There are other practical – and perhaps more immediate – benefits for employers.
Allowing employees to work remotely some or all of the time not only tends to make workers happier – it actively saves employers money.
“It’s quite the deal” for employers in major cities, Taylor says. “I’ve seen companies literally say, I can reduce my square footage footprint by thousands of dollars per month,” especially once the cost of utilities is factored in.
Remote work also allows employers the opportunity to cast a wider net when expanding their pool of talent.
Employers – particularly but not solely state and local governments – have for decades been trying to get a handle on diversity and inclusion in their ranks.
Offering remote work solves the problem at least partially by extending an employer’s reach into groups that are under-represented within a feasible commuting distance.
“Getting Rid of Old Timers”
But even as telework goes more than mainstream, some employers stand firmly against the drift.
Some tech firms, such as Google, prefer to keep confidential code in-house, where it can be more tightly controlled.
Meanwhile, others who once embraced the potential for remote hires have reversed course under either political or financial pressures.
In 2013, Yahoo received a lot of attention when it sought to bring workers back to the office.
The tech company, IBM, and the insurance giant, Aetna, both known for their embrace of remote work, did the same not long after.
More recently, a course reversal on telework hit federal employees. But the cuts to Federal telework programs seem driven in large part by political and leadership challenges, rather than by workplace difficulties.
One government employee told the Washington Post that cutting federal telework was “a subtle way of getting rid of old-timers.”
Of course, there is a possible downside for employers that use the reversal of remote work policies as a means to undertake “stealth” layoffs.
Kate Cox, a writer for Ars Technica, notes that company and government executives come and go, but the need for new talent stays.
“One might well wonder,” Cox says, “for those that slash telework to get rid of perceived chaff when things take a downturn, will enough new employees be willing to take a chance and come on board again down the line?”