Telecommute Nation: If Half of Us Could Work Remotely, Why Don't We?

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More than 34 million people -- equal to the population of Texas and Pennsylvania combined -- work from home occasionally. Twice as many could if they wanted. In the next few years, maybe they will.

workfromhome.jpgREUTERS

You know, this would be a good day to work from home. The heat index is 114 degrees today in Washington, D.C. I have to walk half-an-hour to and from work to an office with no better Internet than my living room. Everything I need to write I can fit into a laptop bag, or on a couch.

So why am I writing this article from the desk at The Atlantic's office?

***

Telecommuting, or working from home, is one of those trends that most people talk about as much in the future tense as the present. Only one in twenty formally employed Americans works consistently from home, but the fact that so many of us could work fills demographers' eyes with visions of empty cubicles and broadband-blazing living rooms.

Fully 75% of the workforce will be mobile by 2012, the research firm IDC predicted in 2008. Not to be outdone, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation predicted in 2009 that the number of jobs filled by telecommuters would grow nearly four-fold before 2020. Other studies hold that half of all jobs are receptive to telework, including the vast majority of information technology positions.

That's a lot of stats. In a nutshell: Half of us could work remotely if we wanted. Far less do. Why?

Even if we're technically more productive at home, we feel more conspicuously productive at work.

The answer might have more to do with psychology than economics. Even if we're technically more productive at home, we feel more conspicuously productive at work. You might think a recession would lead to more telecommuting since it reduces overhead and increases work hours. Instead, telework among the formally employed has slowed in the last three years. Ted Schadler, a telecommuting expert who is vice president and chief analyst at Forrester Research, suggests the answer might be psychological.

"Some bosses think if they can't see you working, you're not working," he says. "If you're worried about losing your job, you're going to come into the office every chance you get."

For me, it comes down to people. The best social technology increases social connections. Facebook keeps us in touch with far-flung friends. Twitter broadcasts our internal monologues to the world. Email, texts, and phones keep us connected even when we're remote. But none of these things forces us to not be with real live people.

Telecommuting is a choice to be alone. It reduces connections between workers. It removes us from the world of work and makes it indistinguishable from the period before and after, which we could simple call life.

***

Still, telework has clear benefits. For the employer, it can save office space, utilities and overhead for employee services. From the worker, it creates more hours for life or desk work. It reduces travel costs. It has external benefits, like less traffic and quicker travel for commuters. We talk a lot about building more efficient public transportation, but the most efficient public transportation is the technology that lets you work from where you sleep.

Telecommuting is a choice to be alone.

Widespread adoption of telework requires three things, Schadler tells me. First, you need to work in the right industry. The growth of high-tech information technology jobs should lead to a growth in telecommuting, which would allow employers to hire the best workers in Florida or Oregon. Within industries, management culture matters. "In pharma sales, everybody works at home," he says. "In pharma marketing, everybody works in the office."

Second, to make remote working really work, you need performance metrics, because bosses can't manage what they can't measure. "If employers could measure output [posts per day, tasks per week, etc] they don't care where you work, or how long you work, as long as you produce the output," Schadler says.

The third factor is the most important and the hardest to quantify: it's personal motivation. I could have called Ted and written these paragraphs from my couch, or the coffee shop across the street from my apartment. Instead, I chose to walk 15 minutes through the tropical heat because ... well, I like my colleagues. I like my desk. I like that it is not the same table where I eat dinner and find funny YouTube videos with my roommates. If telework increases work-time and "life"-time, it does so at the expense of a work-life balance.

Tens of millions of Americans obviously disagree. If you're one of them, leave a note in the comments section. Why do you prefer to work without "coming in to work"?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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