Telecommuting may destroy your work, life balance: Study

Last Updated: Wed, Jan 02, 2013 09:10 hrs

Though the idea of working from home or a remote location and not reporting to office daily may sound glorious, a recent research has shown that it doesn't always reach expectations.

The most recent high-profile failure on this front is a one-year experiment run from August 2010 to August 2011 by the Office for Personal Management-a U.S. government agency that runs the nation's civil service-that allowed employees full flexibility over where and when they worked as long as they got the job done.

Thanks to a Freedom of Information request by the Federal Times, a Deloitte report evaluating the pilot program found that OPM senior managers couldn't evaluate performance of their employees, the quality of work deteriorated, and employees had little idea whether they were putting in enough time and effort.

Granted, not every attempt at full-blown telecommuting ends up like OPM's. Aetna, an insurance company, is often held up as a success story: 47 percent of its U.S. employees work from home every day.

But there's also a downside to spending so much time at home. Aetna's telecommuters tend to be heavier, and the company now provides an online personal trainer to help them stay in shape.

It might also be that, contrary to some early expectations, telecommuting is not necessarily good for the environment.

According to a Slate Magazine report, a 2011 article in the Annals of Regional Science found that, on average, telecommuters end up putting in more travel-on both nonwork-and work-related trips-than those who don't telecommute.

An article defines telecommuters as those who "work at home instead of going to usual workplace" once a week or more.

In other words, that they don't drive to work doesn't mean that they drive less overall.

As Pengyu Zhu, the article's author, put it, "the hopes of planners and policymakers who expected the promotion of telecommuting programs to substitute for face-to-face interactions and thus reduce traditional travels remains largely unmet."

What also doesn't get nearly enough attention is just what it takes to make telecommuters stay on task.

As a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal reveals, more and more firms that have embraced full telecommuting are relying on new and sophisticated tools of surveillance to ensure that their employees are not slacking off.

The employers might be taking screenshots of their computer activity or checking their browser history (while also monitoring how much time their telecommuting employees spend on each site).

If employees are using their home computers for work, their privacy-and that of their relatives-might be collateral damage: Would their employers also peek, if only accidentally, at what they are browsing during the non-working hours?

Somehow, what was supposed to be an "electronic cottage" has become an "electronic sweatshop." It's not just surveillance-it's that many employees who telecommute only occasionally end up doing far more work than before their "emancipation."

This, at any rate, is what a recent study published in Monthly Labor Review, a publication of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggests.

In other words, telecommuters-the majority of whom still go to the office, even if less frequently than their non-telecommuting peers-are in some sort of Catch-22 here: They want to use technology to become more productive and spend more time with their families, but the availability of productivity-boosting technology also makes their managers believe that the employees will get more work done, on weekends or after dinner.

The 2008 Networked Workers survey from the Pew Research project offers some strong evidence to back up these claims, having found that "since 2002, working Americans have become more likely to check their work-related email on weekends, on vacation and before and after they go to work for the day." (ANI)

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