For over a year, I worked almost exclusively from my tiny apartment in Harlem. Aside from trips into an office every six weeks or so, my work schedule and surroundings were mostly left up to me. On some days, I would fly through assignments and personal tasks with unusual efficiency. But on other days, telecommuting meant working from the time I woke up until the wee hours of the morning with no breaks, or spending entire days seemingly accomplishing nothing other than making headway on my Netflix queue.
While my own lack of self discipline likely played a role in my frenzied schedule, a recent paper authored by the professors Tammy D. Allen, Timothy D. Golden, and Kristen M. Shockley, shows that the results of my telecommuting experiment were pretty typical. They found that in 2014, about 25 million people worked remotely at least one day per month. And for most people, working remotely was a mixed bag.
Telecommuting has some definite advantages. Allowing workers a choice in where and how they work can increase employee loyalty and job satisfaction, and may reduce turnover. Those who have the option of working outside of the office also reported somewhat lower levels of stress and exhaustion. And studies have suggested that teleworkers tend to get higher performance evaluations. The list goes on: Allowing people to work away from a company’s main office means increased opportunities for those who work in rural areas and those with disabilities. It can also help the environment, as more people are able to eliminate lengthy commutes.
And then there are the downsides. Though workers have more control over their time, many who telecommute find that balancing work with personal life can be difficult, especially since the lack of physical separation between workspace and family space means that everything blends together. That can lead to lots of stress. The study finds that when looking at work-family conflicts, working remotely doesn’t necessarily make things better. The researchers suggest that this may be because when individuals work from home, they’re automatically expected to take on the bulk of familial duties—from waiting for repairmen to childcare to chores—and that can create tension, especially if they’re still struggling with a full workload. But the researchers also noted that if people work remotely for more than a year, these conflicts seem to decrease as families settle into a routine and create boundaries.
The largest criticisms of telecommuting have to do with the findings that working from home can increase feelings of isolation and that can impact how workers feel about themselves, their work, and their personal lives. The study also shows that there isn’t yet clear data on how telecommuting impacts wages and promotions—which can leave many employees feeling hesitant about committing to a consistent-telecommuting arrangement. Not having colleagues around can also impact the perception of a workers commitment and dampen the creativity that comes from random workplace interactions.
So do the positives or the negatives win out? It’s a toss-up for now, but the frequency and location of telecommuting can tip the balance. Job satisfaction increased for people who work remotely about two work days a week. After that, though job satisfaction plateaus. The study also finds that most research showed productivity for those had a choice of work locations—which can include satellite offices, home offices, or coworking spaces—increased, while peers who worked exclusively from home were less productive. This suggests that allowing workers to spend some, but not all, of their time outside of the office could be beneficial for everyone.
For now, many of the downsides of telecommuting might just be due to the fact that many remote-working programs are in their early stages. Both workers and companies alike are still hashing out how exactly to work together even when they aren’t in the same space.
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