When we first started research on telecommuting in 1973 our focus was on whether telecommuting was practical in the real world, never mind the optimal amount of telecommuting. I insisted that the research involved testing telecommuting in an actual company, one whose bottom line was purely business oriented. The question of the optimal amount of telecommuting/teleworking didn’t come up because we were concerned with whether it was practical at all.
In those days the typical telecommuter was a person who worked using a computer terminal that was connected by wires to a mainframe computer somewhere. The idea of the person doing this from home was simply not practical; telecommunications cost — the cost of connecting that computer terminal to a distant mainframe via telephone connections all day — was simply too high. So in those mid-1970s days we concentrated on people working in what we called satellite offices: typically suburban offices solely owned by the employing company for use by its employees. Only after the arrival of personal computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s was it practical to think about home based telecommuting.
Personal computer technology changed everything. Personal computers made it possible for an employee to do large amounts of work at home while being connected to the company mainframe over a phone line only for brief intervals to dump the work results. The personal computer freed telecommuting from being constantly tethered to the company mainframe, allowing it to be connected as needed instead.
This fundamental technological change and its further developments dramatically expanded the options for telecommuting and telework. As the Internet entered the picture the possibilities exploded to the point where there seemed to be no fundamental barrier to people working any time, anywhere. Now the question changed from to what extent telecommuting and telework is practical to what might be the optimal amount of teleworking for the average employee.
In 2000 we were fortunate enough to get a grant from AT&T, via the International Telework Association and Council, to survey telecommuters in the United States and develop some statistics on their activities. You can get a copy of the results of that survey from JALA’s library. One of the findings was that the average telecommuter was working about half time telecommuting, the rest of the time being spent in a traditional office somewhere.
Since 2000 technological change has continued unabated. Whatever technological barriers to telecommuting were seen in the mid-1970s have essentially vanished by now. Although research and development is still needed to make working at a distance essentially as transparent as working face-to-face, the current levels of technology make such work quite possible for millions of teleworkers.
Now, as a further check on the progress of telework, comes the Gallup State of the American Workplace report for 2017.
Remote working is on the rise. In 2012, Gallup data showed that 39% of employees worked remotely in some capacity, meaning they spent at least some of their time working in a location different from their coworkers. In 2016, that number grew four percentage points to 43%.
Hence the Gallup survey has results quite similar to our earlier work. Teleworking is now a practical option for millions more workers. Now the question is: what might be the optimal amount of teleworking? Gallup has a finding for that as well.
Overall, Gallup discovered that engagement climbs when employees spend some time working remotely and some time working in a location with their coworkers. The optimal engagement boost occurs when employees spend 60% to 80% of their time — or three to four days in a five-day workweek — working off-site. This pattern emphasizes that remote working has the greatest returns on engagement when employees maintain some degree of balance: working remotely most of the time but still getting face time with managers and coworkers.
As we suspected from the beginning — and confirmed in many of our research studies — the amount of teleworking that people are comfortable with slowly increases as they gain more experience with the process. This is true both of telecommuters and their supervisors. It appears that the optimal amount of telecommuting seems to have crept up from about 50% in 2000 to, say, 70% in 2017.
We’re off to a good, if slow, start.