The Biggest Barrier to Teleworking: The Boss

The Biggest Barrier to Teleworking: The Boss

Despite a steady rise in recent years in the number of teleworkers -- and the many benefits that accrue to employers and employees alike -- there's been no broad-scale or systematic adoption of remote working in the U.S.

That's one of the top-level findings in a new report, "The State of Telework in the U.S.: How Individuals, Business, and Government Benefit." The report (PDF), from the Telework Research Network, on behalf of Citrix Systems, also found that workers in management positions or with the highest seniority tend to work from home more regularly than lower-paid employees, even though about half of all workers in the U.S. have jobs that are compatible with telework, at least part time. 

The No. 1 barrier? Management resistance. 

"It's entirely clear the hold-back is culture," said the report's co-author Kate Lister, adding later, "Companies need to manage by results rather than by butts in seats."

Companies that aren't taking advantage of telework opportunities could be missing the boat now, or down the road, Lister said, noting that 82 of the top 100 companies on Forbes' 2011 list of Best Companies to Work For allow their employees to work from home at least 20 percent of the time.

"Those that do (allow teleworking) realize it's a killer way to engage people, attract the best and the brightest, and to hold onto the people they already have," Lister said.

Some 55 million workers have jobs that would be compatible with teleworking at least part of the time, but just 2.9 million work primarily from home, or 2.3 percent. If 50 million potential telecommuters were allowed to work off-site on a regular basis, they would save a combined $900 billion annually and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 51 million metric tons per year, about the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 33 million vehicles.

Teleworking is not necessarily and all-or-nothing proposition; two to three days a week is optimal, Lister said. And data shows that telework opportunities are more frequently surfacing outside the traditional information technology industries, such as in the waste management, agriculture and military sectors.

"It's a reflection that jobs today across industries have some sort of information component," Lister said.

The transformation to a telework-friendly culture, however, can take time.

"They have to do it now or they will be looking at the back of their employees' heads as they're walking out the door," Lister said, pointing to a poll earlier this year  that found 60 percent of workers planned to look for a new job after the recession.

Other findings from the report:

• Between 2005 and 2009, regular telecommuting -- defined as working from home at least weekly -- grew 61 percent. The average time spent working from off-site was 2.4 days.

• If historical growth rates continue, the number of regular telecommuters will reach 4.9 million by 2016, a 69 percent increase over current levels. This conservative estimate is below other forecasts.

• San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, Calif., has the highest concentration of telecommuters -- 4.2 percent -- who work primarily from home out of the 15 largest U.S. metro areas. In last place is the Detroit-Warren-Livonia, Mich., at 2.1 percent.

• Since 2005, the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metro area posted the fastest percentage growth in regular telecommuting, at 77 percent.

• The stereotypical telecommuter is 49, college-educated and making $58,000 a year in a professional or management role.

• 76 percent of telecommuters are employed by private companies, compared to 81 percent in 2005, largely due to an increase in state and federal workers telecommuting.

• Larger companies are more likely to permit telecommuting. Biggest barrier: management fear and distrust.