In labor circles, telecommuting has been hailed as a boon, giving employees the flexibility to work outside the office. But a new study shows working at home may just add hours, at little to no extra pay.
The study, from sociologists at the University of Iowa and the University of Texas, was based on a long-running national survey of American workers with a standard 40-hour work week. It found that those who opted to work at least part of the time away from the office ended up working an average of three hours more per week, encroaching on home and family time.
The findings may change workers' perceptions of the value of telecommuting and could spur employers to better define the work-at-home workday.
"To think that telecommuting eases the burden may be a little simplistic," says Mary Noonan, associate professor in sociology at the UI and co-author of the study, published in the journal Social Forces. "It cuts down on commuting time, and it appears to add more flexibility to the work day. But it can extend the day, and it doesn't get you much more in terms of wage growth."
The study's authors drew their findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which polled workers at regular intervals from 1989 to 2008. Among midlife employees, more than 40 percent of salaried workers reported working from home at some point during the survey period.
The researchers looked at workers who had worked for the same employer and had telecommuted at least some of the time.
Among that group, the authors found little difference in earnings growth between employees who worked at home from those who stayed at the office in the standard work week. In addition, the survey showed female employees who telecommute were paid the same as men for the 40-hour work week.
"Employers are becoming perhaps more and more cognizant that men and women are dividing housework more evenly," Noonan says. "Perhaps the employers look at men and women more similarly today than maybe 30, 40 years ago."
However, the downside becomes apparent when overtime comes into play: The study suggests that salaried employees who telecommute simply extend their work week, carving into home and family time.
"It doesn't seem like telecommuting is used by people to replace work hours," Noonan says. "When people telecommute, they use it mostly to do more work."
So, why do employees choose to do it?
There are many reasons, Noonan says. In an era of smartphones, employees are more likely to take work home, Noonan says, such as checking and responding to emails. People working at home may feel more pressure to demonstrate their productivity than those who are visible in the office, in supervisors' plain sight. Working mothers may experience added stress as they juggle home life with work.
The aftershocks of the Great Recession, which ended in June 2009, may exacerbate those emotions.
"Employers are demanding more of their workers. It's a rat race in some respects," Noonan says. "There's a lot more stress with some people that if they don't do more, they could lose their jobs, and if they don't do their job, stay connected, the next person will. It's hard when there's anxiety about performing."
A bright side is that some employers understand the advantage of offering telecommuting as a perk to attract talented workers. Those companies are more likely to discourage overtime worked from home, or at least pay for it. But employees need to make sure they're tracking their time and keeping their bosses apprised, Noonan says.
"People should be aware of telling their employer of what they accomplish when they work at home or work overtime," Noonan says. The paper, "Telecommuting and Earnings Trajectories Among American Women and Men 1989-2008," was co-authored by Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at UT Austin.
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