Stealth Telecommuting

At fairly regular intervals I get questions from the media like: “Whatever happened to the great surge in telecommuting that was predicted back in 19xx (or 20xx)?” The reporter usually hadn’t seen any recent stories about telecommuting and therefore (while imagining the headline) leapt to the conclusion that “telecommuting is dead!”

Telecommuting isn’t dead. It’s alive and well, if stealthy.

As a very recent indicator I was listening to NPR this morning as the reporter in Manhattan was describing the return to work of exurban-dwelling workers after the onslaught of Hurricane Irene. The reporter’s words were to the effect that workers seemed to be arriving by bus or car as usual or “maybe they’re telecommuting” (as an explanation of the lower than usual numbers of arrivals). An indication that disaster planning efforts that included telecommuting might actually be in effect in many companies (see some of my earlier blogs to that effect). But who’s counting?

I have also had conversations over the past few years with employees of large corporations on  the topic of telecommuting, both formal and informal (stealth). The general telecommuting implementation scenario goes:

  • The company needed to reduce per capita office space expense either by reducing space (after the leases expire) or by accommodating more employees in existing space.
  • One way to reduce space demand is to institute “hot desking” (or hoteling or similar euphemisms for assigning desk space on an ad hoc basis). This allows space to be retrieved that would otherwise be empty as a result of traveling or telecommuting workers.
  • The result is that office space is required only for the smaller number of workers who will actually be in the office at any give time. Space expenses are reduced and everyone lives happily ever after.

This scenario has actually occurred in many companies. And then some. What is likely to happen as well is that the telecommuters—and their supervisors—like the telecommuting part of it so well that they just keep on telecommuting most of the time. Going to the office only for  meetings (some of them). This leaves the facilities manager scratching her head, wondering why there’s still unoccupied office space, even after all that intensive space planning. Some facilities managers even plead with their telecommuters to come into the office more often in order to justify the space plans. To no avail. Telecommuting works just fine so don’t break it.

That brings us to the question of counting. The occasional report appears in the media stating that there are now X million telecommuters/teleworkers in the US/Europe/Japan/wherever. How do they know? Who did they ask in order to come up with the numbers? If one goes to Company Z and simultaneously asks the CEO, HR manager, Facilities manager, and IT manager how many telecommuters they have, there will be at least 5 different answers unless they’re given time to come up with an agreed-upon number. All of them wrong. All of them low. The official estimates will not include the stealth telecommuters.

My forecast, made a decade ago, was that there would be more than 40 million teleworkers in the US by the end of this year. About 28% of the workforce. If you see lower estimates I propose that those estimates don’t include the stealth telecommuters.

What’s your guess? And why?

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