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Summary:

Stephen Ruth, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, has argued that telecommuting cannot keep expanding without creating significant issues. We called him up and asked him why he is less optimistic than some about the expansion of telecommuting.

problems with telecommuting expansion

With technology improving each year and some 30 million or so American workers expressing a desire to work from outside the office, there’s good reason for optimism about the future of web work. But not everyone thinks the sky’s the limit when it comes to offering more and more workers the opportunity to work virtually.

For example, Stephen Ruth, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, recently wrote a draft book chapter entitled The Dark Side of Telecommuting – Is a Tipping Point Approaching? In it he argues that telecommuting cannot keep expanding without creating significant issues. We called him up and asked him why he is less optimistic than some about the expansion of telecommuting.

“Everybody loves it,” he said, including himself among fans of web work. “I’ve actually looked over thousands of articles and hardly any of them are critical, but the theme I’m bringing up here is that we’re probably at a tipping point. There are about five or six different areas that people don’t seem to be talking about that are probably going to cause the return on investment from telecommuting to start going down if it isn’t already.” So what are some of the things he thinks will be a drag on web work expansion?

  • Demographics.The basic demographic of people who telework is basically wealthy, relatively educated, also relatively satisfied with their jobs, and the new people who come on, they have to come from a different demographic,” explains Ruth. Will new telecommuters be as suitable for virtual work as those already at it? “There may be some factors—temperament, life-style, discipline, work focus ability, eating habits, tolerance for ambiguity, and others—that limit the effectiveness of additional entrants,” Ruth has written.
  • The frustrated remainder. If more and more employees flee their cubicles for web work, what happens to those workers who are inevitably left behind? “They are frustrated,” says Ruth, who thinks that managers who remain behind to man the ship are going to face increasing challenges as more and more workers go virtual. As the demands on them grow do the productivity gains of telecommuting shrink?

Ruth concludes: “There is a possibility that once the most qualified persons are working from their homes, cars, restaurants and customer sites at high levels of morale and productivity, there may be some major problems in welcoming the next large group into the fold.”

Do you agree?

 Image courtesy of Flickr user kowitz

  1. I disagree with Professor Ruth. First, the current demographics of teleworkers are undergoing a major change. With three generations in the workforce, Y, X and Boomer, telework has become an attractive, if not required, means of working for an increasingly diverse percentage of the workforce. As organizations seek to make their employment brands more attractive to all generations, the ability to work anywhere-anytime is an attractive arrangement for all.
    As for the “Frustrated Remainder,” technology is and will continue to enable more positions to become “portable.” Certainly, those that require special purpose spaces – dry rooms, high capacity computing, top secret environments – will always be tethered to a facility. For those individuals, my experience has shown that they accept the reality that works is both a thing that you do and a place that you go. It is their work process…one that they have chosen.

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  2. I disagree with Professor Ruth. First, the current demographics of teleworkers are undergoing a major change. With three generations in the workforce, Y, X and Boomer, telework has become an attractive, if not required, means of working for an increasingly diverse percentage of the workforce. As organizations seek to make their employment brands more attractive to all generations, the ability to work anywhere-anytime is an attractive arrangement for all.
    As for the “Frustrated Remainder,” technology is and will continue to enable more positions to become “portable.” Certainly, those that require special purpose spaces – dry rooms, high capacity computing, top secret environments – will always be tethered to a facility. For those individuals, my experience has shown that they accept the reality that works is both a thing that you do and a place that you go. It is their work process…one that they have chosen.

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  3. Michael Shear Thursday, August 4, 2011

    I believe Dr Ruth is accurate in his observations. Telework has primarily (I did not say absolutely) been a ‘privilege’ for the established workers. They have the seniority and living environment that is supportive of the work from home or nomadic work practices. The daily impact of telework is still quite small and the current models are not holistic ie embracing enough of our workforce, enough of the time. There are social and cultural identities, coaching, mentoring, and camaraderie. Johnson Controls produced a rather thorough report “Generation Y and the Workplace” found “There is a clear preference for flexible working and being able to choose when and where to conduct work with the ultimate aim of achieving a sustainable work / life balance. This contrasts with the Generation Y’s preference for dedicated workstations and the ability to personalise their work space as they are able to personalise their web applications to establish their own identity. . . . Their creativity and productivity is triggered by three major factors: “The people around them”, colleagues and collaborators, “The ambiance and atmosphere” in the workplace through the design, layout and facilities but also people, and “The technology” solutions they are provided with.”

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  4. I’m interested in knowing with what demographics of people Prof. Ruth is concerned. If people are responsible workers in the office why would they not be responsible workers at home? When work expectations are clear to both employer and employee then it should be clear to both parties whether a telework arrangement is working. What does it matter where the work takes place as long as it gets done? I think if there is a problem it’s not so much whether workers can be depended to do their work from home, but whether employers can be properly support and mentor them at home.

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  5. Sally Southern Friday, August 12, 2011

    Interesting article. But telework isn’t even on the radar screen for the vast majority of the nation’s federal workforce outside the Beltline. No one ever even considers it, regardless of level of “privilege.”

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  6. The grass is greener on the other side. I work for IBM (and these are my private views) where many of us telecommute, in fact the majority of the people I manage do so and they love it. I personally prefer to work in an office, and do exactly that (I had to apply for an exemption to be able to do so). I have 5 young children at home and I am much more productive at the office, and in addition, I like to see the people I work with, even if they are part of a different team (which is the case since most of my team members live hundreds of miles away). I love it when I go to non-telework locations like Austin and Raleigh and I see long corridors bustling with fellow employees. I also make a point of meeting my team members regularly, and have as many face to face meetings as I can. People thrive on interaction with other people, and as much as I love the technology that we have helped to create to enable us to telecommute. nothing can replace being in the same room as someone. I do like the freedom of being able to work where I want to – I think people should be able to choose to work where they do, and I am glad that I work in a part of a company that allows us to do exactly that, and there are indeed occasions (like now) when I do need to work at home, and that’s just fine.

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