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Summary:

Telework may have obvious benefits, but the number of remote workers isn’t exactly soaring. In fact, according to some recent studies, the growth in telecommuting is actually slowing. Many explanations are possible, but maybe the simplest is best: The terrible economy has everyone scared.

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For exactly all of its obvious benefits to productivity, the environment and even the bottom line, telecommuting has experienced explosive growth. There may be plenty of chatter about the practice and even government cheerleading for companies to get on the bandwagon, but outside certain specific professional niches and geographical regions, working via the Internet is hardly the day-to-day norm for most.

Nor is the uptake of telecommuting speeding up, according to recent research. In fact, the rate of growth is slowing down, claims a recent post on the blog Workshifting:

The latest research from the Telework Research Network indicates that while telework is growing, it’s not increasing at the pace we might have expected. According to 2009 U.S. Census data, 61 percent more employees considered home their primary place of work versus 2005. But that number translates to only 2.3 percent of the total workforce.

When compared with a recent report from WorldatWork, which indicates that the overall number of teleworkers declined between 2008 and 2010, a trend emerges. The frequency of telework has increased, meaning fewer workshifters are doing more flexible work.

What’s behind this decrease in the number of teleworkers? Workshifting suggests a number of possibilities, including:

  • Not everyone wants to telecommute
  • Companies struggling to quantify the costs and benefits
  • Inadequate tools and resources available to support the lifestyle
  • Businesses still unsure how to manage people they can’t see

All of these are certainly hurdles to increased telecommuting, but a separate recent study suggests the slowdown in the increase in remote work may have a simpler explanation: the terrible economy.

That seems to be true in the UK at least, where communications company O2 has recently published a report looking at the future of work and flexible working. The poll of 2,000 workers found that two out of five feel pressured to be in the office because of the gloomy economy. O2 has dubbed the fear of prejudice against remote work “presenteeism” and says the condition is on the rise among Brits.

“With so many organizations facing economic uncertainty, our research suggests large numbers of businesses are missing out on the productivity gains, improved employee and customer engagement and efficient processes that such flexible working practices can deliver,” said David Plumb, O2’s general manager for enterprise.

At Net:Work in December, we’ll discuss the future of the mobile workforce and how managers can better manage remote workers. Get your tickets today.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Images_of_Money

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    Hi Jessica, Kate Lister of the Telework Research Network here. I’m the author of one of the studies you mentioned. I thought I might elaborate on the telework trend data you quoted from Workshifting.com.

    Our research (based on U.S. Census/American Community Survey data) shows that regular telecommuting (half-time or more) has increased steadily for the past 5 years. Though the growth slowed during the recession, it still far outpaced that of the overall workforce (which grew only about 4% in the same period and actually lost ground in 2009) and the self-employed workforce (which grew less than 2% from 2005 to 2009 and declined in both 2008 and 2009).

    WorldatWork’s data is based on a survey of about occasional telecommuting (as infrequent as one day a month). Their 2011 report showed that in the wake of a 74 percent increase in occasional telecommuters between 2005 and 2008, there was a small decline in 2008 and 2010. A little less than half of that decline was the result of decline in the overall labor market.

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    On balance, the small loss of occasional telecommuters reported by WorldatWork is about equal to the gain in those who do so regularly. Perhaps companies realized they could save money by converting occasional teleworkers to regular ones.

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