If you are at all interested in the role of telework for your organization, for your team, or even for yourself, I recommend taking a little bit of time to read over a recent research piece titled, 'The hard truth about telecommuting', published in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Monthly Labor Review June 2012 issue.
In the piece, authors Mary C. Noonan and Jennifer L. Glass review the results of their recently completed research that examined the prevalence of telecommuting in the US workforce, the trends in adoption of telecommuting over time, and most interesting to me at least, how telecommuting arrangements tend over time to increase the total amount of hours worked, rather than simply substitute 'home' hours for 'office' hours.
If you are someone that currently or in the past has done at least some remote work for your organization, the study's most damning conclusion about telework probably will not be very surprising - that between half and two thirds of telework arrangements simply serve to add working hours to the work week, and doe not simply trade hours worked at home for hours that are normally spent working in the office. Details from the BLS piece:
Fully 67 percent of telecommuting hours in the NLSY (data) and almost 50 percent in the CPS (data) push respondents’ work hours above 40 per week and essentially occur as overtime work. This dynamic suggests that telecommuting in practice expands to meet workers’ needs for additional worktime beyond the standard workweek.
As a strategy of resistance to longer work hours at the office, telecommuting appears to be somewhat successful in relocating those hours but not eliminating them. A less sanguine interpretation is that the ability of employees to work at home may actually allow employers to raise expectations for work availability during evenings and weekends and foster longer workdays and workweek.
These findings, while not terribly surprising, particularly when considering how the rapid advances in mobile technology have made 'working from anywhere' a possibility and reality for so many of us, also raise some important issues for organizations or leaders that are supporting or offering telework to their teams. Namely, any telework program that promises or at least suggests the promise of how telework will be a simple 'shift' of work from one location to another is an outcome that is unlikely at best and misleading at worst.
A more honest and realistic approach and pitch to telework is one that more of less frames it as 'This job carries high demands and expectations AND we know you have a busy life outside of work too,' Here's how telework fits - that 'extra' 5 or 10 or 20 hours we need from you? Take them as and when you need them - the office, your house, at Starbucks -whatever.'
And the thing of it is - when framed in that manner, telework stops sounding much like telework and more like just plain old 'work.'
Here's the last observation I have about telework, and this is largely from my personal experience - the irony of telework is people at work think you are more or less free to 'work' all the time or at any time, while your family and friends at home see you working from home and think you are 'free' all the time.
What do you think - has telework simply become 'work more from home in your previously free time?'