Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?

Fredric Paul, Editor in Chief / Community Activist | 5/18/2010 | 30 comments

Fredric Paul
Last week, Veronica Henry blogged about how telecommuting was "Good for Business, Great for the Planet." Today sees the release of some new facts and figures on the subject.

Citrix Online, which makes remote access products, natch, has come out with a report -- "Workshifting Benefits: The Bottom Line" -- claiming telecommuting could save US businesses $10,000 per employee, or a whopping $400 billion per year!

Conducted by the (unbiased?) Telework Research Network -- the study is all good news, but that $400 billion figure raised warning flags for me. The number comes from combining five-year-old data claiming that 40 percent of American workers could work from home at least part-time, and a 2009 survey indicating that 79 percent of them would do it if allowed.

Given that somewhat problematic universe, the study calculates savings of $235 billion in increased productivity, $46 billion in reduced absenteeism, and $31 billion in reduced employee turnover, plus $2 billion in highway maintenance costs, and $11 billion in traffic accident costs. The report also says that full commitment to telecommuting would save the equivalent of two to three weeks of time spent commuting, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 53 million metric tons (the equivalent of taking 9.6 million cars off the road), and reduce consumption of foreign oil by $23 billion.

To top it all off, the study cites a 27 percent increase in productivity on days when employees work from home, due to reduced interruptions, more effective time management, a feeling of trust, flexible scheduling, and longer hours available by reducing commuting.

Frankly, it all sounds a little too good to be true for me. I'm all for telecommuting when practical and appropriate, but I think we're being oversold.

Currently, the report says, only some 2 percent of workers actually do telecommute. Why? If you ask me that's partly because the right tools haven't been available, and partly because most companies -- and most people -- are built on the concept of people working together and getting to know each other in person.

A lot of these projected benefits are still pretty theoretical. For example, would telecommuters' productivity really stay elevated by 27 percent when half the company is spending half their days at home? Sure workplace distractions are a drag, but what about the distractions of working at home?

Also, the study seems to flip back and forth between part-time and full-time telecommuting options, when the two pose very different challenges and opportunities. For example, the study claims telecommuting cuts facilities costs. But those savings would be marginal for part-time telecommuting unless employees are willing to share office space in hoteling and hot-desking schemes -- the modern equivalent of hot-bunking on naval vessels. (Ewwww.)

More to the point, I have a lot of experience both telecommuting and working with telecommuters, and I can tell you there are pluses and minuses to the practice. Despite dramatic improvements in remote-working technology, it's a mistake to think that telecommuting can provide the rich interactions of in-person collaboration. That's less of an issue for part-time telecommuters, but then you lose some of the savings.

Hey, and don't forget about the poor folks stuck in the office. Past research has shown that telecommuters may be happy with their lot, but the remaining office workers are often resentful, feeling that that they're left having to pick up slack.

And then there's this: Buried in the Citrix Online report is a forecast by TechCast, estimating "the market for related telecommuting products and services at $400 billion a year." Well, there goes your $400 billion savings!

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Broadway   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/25/2010 11:20:28 PM
Re: Optimistic numbers?

That is a great point for why hierarchical organizations could be against telecommuting. I always think of certain companies being against it because they want tight controls over their workers' activities and productivity, or their IT access, or their time, or they want to maintain that "team" culture.

But to think that telecommuting is "bad" because too many middle managers won't have a reason to exist without an office full of peons to supervise. That's genius and gets to the inherent inefficiencies that telecommuting could cure that are the very same reasons that prevent telecommuting from flourishing. Conundrum! I have a quick solution. No more MBAs. No offense to any MBAs here ... but come on, admit it, there are waaaaayyyy too many of you around already.
Cyrus   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/25/2010 10:28:15 AM
Re: Optimistic numbers?
That's potentially true, but it's in actuality difficult to say. For example, if I were working in Manhattan right now, I'd have to have a/c blasting for me in some form because there's no way to realistically ventiliate a typical office building without it. Yet, just 45 miles north, in a small village without tons of traffic and other things that create artificial heat, I can say I haven't had to use air conditioning in more than 2 years.

Secondly, distributing the work force could mean that you'd need less of the energy-sucking equipment like servers, laser printers, etc. It's relatively easy to come up with ways to handle data across a collaborative work force, even if it's not using some hosted solution that has security issues.

Thirdly, there's a simple reason we don't embrace telecommuting and that's because since the dawn of the white-collar worker phenomenon, most who works for another company has aspired to be a manager. Well, if you don't have people sitting in one place all day that have to abide by all kinds of policies and other things that are the sole reason some have a job, you'd be able to get by with MANY fewer managers. And managers aren't going to gore their own ox.
Fredric Paul   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/25/2010 1:03:20 AM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers
@ Broadway

Well, I live in San Francisco, and we do have public transportation. People who ride the trains (BART and Caltrain) from the suburbs often do get work done. But those who ride the City's own Muni system are actually advised NOT to pull out smartphones and such on the crowded trams and buses.

First, they get in the way of other riders, and second, it's become all too common for someone to snatch the devices out of their hands as they exit. Not a good way to start or end a day.

Of course, folks who work for some of the big Silicon Valley tech companies -- can you say Google? -- may be able to enjoy private shuttle buses with cushy seats and free WiFi. But with the long hours at those firms, I hear that while many riders work during the trip, many others snooze.
Broadway   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/24/2010 11:29:56 PM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers
Actually, Fred, if you're lucky enough to live in a city with a decent public transportation system and are able to use it to get to work, you can make commuting productive. Truly industrious train or bus riders, for instance, with the proper smart phone or wireless laptop can manage to clear their inboxes before they even get into the office. Or they can prepare reports, do research on the Web and prepare for the day in other ways ... I know I sound like I'm writing the script for a commercial for a wireless or telecomm company, but it's true. I've seen it happen.

Then again, normal lazy people like myself might instead spend the time relaxing, reading a book or the paper, watching a movie, or snoozing....but like you said, for them it might be there only time alone in the day.
Fredric Paul   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/24/2010 8:18:22 PM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers
@ Matthew McKenzie

You can bet energy prices are going to go up over the long haul. And with all the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, I feel guilty every time I so much as look at my car.

If/when we do return to $5 gas -- or even higher -- we'll certainly see more telecommuting. But it will also lead to more mass transit and other alternatives to driving.

Matthew McKenzie   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/24/2010 12:29:23 PM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers
Judging from the insane stuff I have seen people do while also trying to "drive," it seems like they're hell-bent on making the most out of their daily "me time."

I know one way to figure out once and for all how telecommuting would work out on a mass scale. It's called $5 a gallon gas. We came pretty close to finding out how that would go down back in 2008.
Fredric Paul   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/23/2010 10:25:41 PM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers
Whether or not telecommuting is productive, we know that the regular kind of commuting is NOT productive. 

I hate commuting, but I do understand that many people actually enjoy, even treasure, their commuting time. They like bing alone in their nice cars, with all that comfort and technology available, and not having to deal with their responsibilities. I hear some folks say it's the only time they have to themselves all day.

Of course, being stuck in traffic has been known to vacuum out all the pleasure from commuting by car. And most public transit commuters don't typically enjoy their commutes.  (For walkers and bikers, of course, commuting can be pleasant, and actually good for them!)
Broadway   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/23/2010 10:27:27 AM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers

You are right on. Given the changing nature of corporate work, the continued growth in population in metro areas, the disintegration of our nation's infrastructure, the development of more and more sophisticated technologies, etc. etc., telecommuting is almost becoming an imperative, it almost seems like a natural and unstoppable progression.

Yet on the other hand, I think you or somebody will need to do some serious proselytizing to push telecommuting on many business owners. Or just wait until these business owners die off/retire and the next generation move into their spots. My perspective is that way too many people in powerful positions look at telecommuting with a skeptical eye, whether it's because of company culture like I've mentioned earlier, or because of IT cynicism, what have you.
catalyst   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/23/2010 9:13:13 AM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers
I don't think the discussion of whether telecommuting is good, lends to increased productivity, etc. is all that important. The more important question that needs to be asked is whether or not telecommuting works for the company and for particular functions and most importantly the individual. I don't think answering the general question of whether or not telecommuting adds to increased productivity helps, at all. We also tend to think that particular types of companies and/or specific functions within the company bode well for telecommuting but that also overlooks the more important consideration as to whether the individual is more productive at home/cafe or at work. Of course it's not even as simple as that. An individual might be highly productive at work for particular tasks and not so for other tasks and vice versa.

In the SF Bay Area there are many commuters that spend about an hour in traffic each way. By the time he/she enters the company building physical and emotional energies have been sapped and it will take some time and a cup of coffee, maybe two, to get back to being at normal productivity levels. When looking from individual companies to cities to states to the entire country there is an enormous amount of time, gas, money, energy, productivity wasted. As the US continues to shift toward a knowledge economy the option to telecommute should become standard and recommended when the task and the individual can benefit from it.

One interesting development is LTE or 4G in the US. With that kind of data bandwidth video calls will become standard. Sprint's 4G network is the first out of the gate and the new EVO 4G from HTC has a front-facing camera that allows for flickr-free video calls. The next iPhone will also have a front-facing camera. This is just one example of how surrounding technology infrastructures will make telecommuting much more easy.
Matthew McKenzie   Are Telecommuting Stats Too Good to Be True?   5/21/2010 10:52:26 AM
Re: Optimistic numbers - and pessimistic numbers
The productivity claims still strike me as being kinda soft. I assume the 27 percent average claim is based on a mean of the companies cited in the study (BT, Dow, Amex, etc.). That's fine, but it begs the question of comparing methodologies from those cases, how and why telecommuting participants were selected, what job roles were involved, and a bunch of other factors.

I don't see anything malicious or intentionally misleading about the conclusion, but I also take issue with the assumption that the same benefits can be expected of more widespread telecommuting programs involving a much higher pecentage of the population than that two percent currently cited. After all, that two percent could be a vanguard group in a lot of ways -- job function, work experience, long-term on the job performance, etc. -- and the next two percent of the population could deliver less sterling results. (Never mind the ten percent after tha, and so on.)

Like Fred said, nobody is slamming telecommuting or its benefits. But the study really does seem to make heavy use of best-case estimates, and I don't know if that approach if really the best way to promote the issue.

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