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Summary:

The case for telecommuting is solid and gets more so with each new study. But despite this mounting pile of evidence, the number of actual telecommuters hasn’t exactly skyrocketed. Why? Economist Bryan Caplan points to a paper that blames signaling.

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The case for telecommuting is solid and gets more so with each new study. Here’s one from just this week showing long commutes are correlated with bad heart health, for example. But despite this large and growing pile of evidence in favor of the practice, the increasing technological feasibility of many desk jobs going virtual and years upon years of discussion of the benefits of remote work, the number of actual telecommuters hasn’t exactly skyrocketed. What’s up with that?

Some have pointed the finger at reluctant middle managers, but on EconLog this week economist Bryan Caplan reports that a new paper offers another compelling explanation. The senior paper by Georgetown undergraduate Alexander Clark, which Caplan, describes as “fascinating,” says the problem with the uptake of telecommuting is signaling. Caplan writes:

Workers physically commute for signaling reasons.  Employers can monitor your productivity better when you actually come to the office.  Workers who telecommute put themselves on the slow track to success – if they can even get hired in the first place.  To bolster this thesis, Clark analyzes the American Time Use Survey using the employer learning-statistical discrimination (EL-SD) framework.  He finds that the labor market does indeed take longer to reward telecommuters for their hard-to-observe abilities.

Caplan also offers an excerpt of Clark’s paper, which argues not only that managers fear telecommuters are shirking, making face time a signal of hard work, but also notes that showing up at the office, in essence, reaffirms a worker’s status as belonging to what amounts to the office tribe. Don’t show up and your boss and colleagues could take the move as a rejection. Clark writes:

In a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, which questioned 11,383 people in 24 countries, about half believed that they would be at a disadvantage in earning promotions because of the lack of face-to-face contact (2012). Previous research suggests part-time telecommuters do not communicate less frequently with managers (Duxbury and Neufeld 1999). Even so, more than simple communication matters. Showing up at an office may signal positive attributes to a boss. If a boss leaves work for the day and notices an employee staying late, it could serve as a visual reminder of work ethic. Working in a shared workplace also gives greater opportunity to demonstrate cooperativeness. The employee recruitment process often emphasizes the importance of labels like “team player,” and many companies strive to create collegial work environments and attractive office cultures. If a boss were to psychoanalyze an employee’s decision to telecommute, the resulting signal likely would not be that the employee wants to use time saved commuting to put in additional work. At worst, telecommuting would be seen as an atomistic rejection of the (sometimes carefully constructed) office environment.

The effect of these signals was clear when Clark combed through the numbers. “After four years of experience, the average male telecommuter will earn about 6.9 percent less than a non-telecommuter,” concludes Clark.

Do you find the idea that signaling is at the heart of telecommuting’s anemic uptake convincing?

Image courtesy of Flickr user chidorian

  1. Trevor Jones Friday, June 1, 2012

    I 100% believe this. Pace Seth Godin, this is also incredibly old-fashioned; related to managing drones and not successful people in the knowledge economy. This is a symptom of the transition we’re working through between the industrial and knowledge ages.
    Trevor Jones
    Ottawa

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  2. We are a staffing and recruitment firm and approx. 3 years ago we gave our employees the opportunity to work remotely but they still come into the office 1-2 days per week. This mix works great for us in terms of productivity, maintaining the presence of team and cost reduction. I would agree with Trevor in that the relatively slow uptake of telecommuting for work is simply growing pains, primarily experienced by those managers who perhaps are fearful of change or losing control. Managers with their eye to the future will see that it’s simply a shift in the way one manages and it’s much more performance driven. Both manager and telework employee require certain skills to make it work best. See the link for examples: http://www.essexjobs.com/newsletter2/index.php/part-3-telework-successful-telework-depends-on-the-skills-of-manager-and-employee/201157/

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  3. Much of the reason for my desire to telecommute is driven by an “atomistic rejection of the office environment”. The last few companies I’ve worked at have had an open-plan office (“one big room”), ostensibly to promote collaboration, but with an off-task interruption every few minutes (impromptu meetings at nearby desks, phone calls to other workers), I’ve learned that I can only get focused, quality work done at home.

    If my job actually required or benefitted from moment-to-moment collaboration, the open-plan space would be fine, and I’m sure there are roles that benefit from such collaboration, but from experience I’ve come to see open-plan offices as work environment cost reduction masked as a “new way of working”.

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  4. Much of the reason for my desire to telecommute is driven by an “atomistic rejection of the office environment”. The last few companies I’ve worked at have had an open-plan office (“one big room”), ostensibly to promote collaboration, but with an off-task interruption every few minutes (impromptu meetings at nearby desks, phone calls to other workers), I’ve learned that I can only get focused, quality work done at home.

    If my job actually required or benefitted from moment-to-moment collaboration, the open-plan space would be fine, and I’m sure there are roles that benefit from such collaboration, but from experience I’ve come to see open-plan offices as work environment cost reduction masked as a “new way of working”.

    To the specific point of this article, it does seem that workers are judged more favorably by the number of face-time hours worked than by results or productivity.

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  5. I think this article has merit. Perhaps as the next generation of workers, who will be accustomed to having continuous video chat / monitoring feeds always on in the background, a virtual sense of engagement will be created and increase interest in telecommuting.

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