How many telecommuters are there now?

Those who wish to find an unimpeachable estimate of the telecommuters in the US these days have a problem. For example, my own forecast of the number of US teleworkers (mostly telecommuters) in the US at the end of 2014 says that they will constitute 30% of the workforce (40+ million teleworkers) and account for reducing vehicle travel by 140 billion miles over what would happen without telecommuting. On the other hand, the National Study of Employers run by the Family and Work Institute claims that “today more employers are providing occasional telecommuting (67%) for at least some employees than in 2008 (50%).” On the third hand, Top Management Degrees claims that there will be 3.9 million teleworkers in the US by 2016 — an order of magnitude less than my forecast for 2014.

So which, if any, of these estimates is right? The answer is: it depends.

It depends on who is classified as a telecommuter; on who is asked to number them; and on how they are asked what the number is.

My (current) definition of a teleworker  is someone who works at home or some other location near home (like a telework center or Starbucks)  instead of at a conventional office at least part of the time, thereby reducing his/her use of motorized transportation through use of information technology. This does not include those who work at home in addition to working at the conventional office (no transportation reduction). Nor does it necessarily include so-called mobile workers since they are still transportation users.

A version of this definition is what we used in our national survey of teleworkers in 2000. We focused on asking the actual teleworkers, via phone interviews, rather than their employers. The reason we went directly to the worker rather than their employers was that often:

  • it was difficult to find someone in HR or elsewhere who claimed to know how many teleworkers they employed;
  • teleworkers were often employed on a case-by-case basis with no formal recognition of the existence of telecommuting in the organization;
  • organizations are often reluctant to divulge the number of telecommuting employees if they consider telecommuting to be a “secret weapon” against their competitors; and
  • the teleworkers themselves definitely know whether or not they’re teleworking.

Still, the results of the Family and Work Institute  survey don’t seem to be wildly inconsistent with my forecast for this year.

Since a graph of the number of telecommuters by the rate at which they telecommute (ranging from every day of the week to never) has a long tail we set the limit at a full day once every month. The result of that mid-year 2000 survey was that there were about 17 million teleworkers (again, mostly telecommuters) in the United States, half of them telecommuting at least once weekly and with the mean about half-time. We did not ask about mobile workers; those who work mostly on the road rather than in an office.

A similar telephone  survey was done in 2001 by a team at Old Dominion University. Their finding was that there were “approximately 28 million Americans who are teleworkers that work at home, at a telework center or satellite office, work on the road, or some combination of these.” That estimate does include some mobile workers. In any case, it seems clear that, unless there has been a huge drop in the number of telecommuters since 2001, the estimate by the Top Management Degrees website seriously underestimates reality.

Unfortunately, it seems that no two published estimates of the number of teleworkers after the first part of this century use the same methodology. My forecasts are based on the data I know about through our 2000 study plus a good deal of analytical modeling since then.  But without good, well-defined — and expensive — surveys it’s hard to tell for sure. Therefore the number of teleworkers today might be graphed as a cloud, with reality somewhere in there.

Good hunting!

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