Telework pros and cons


Going Virtual, Going Green: A Manifesto by Jared Seeger at Huffington Post makes a good case for telework, and includes a reference to some of our research. While the article made a convincing case, a few readers still questioned the value of telework. We’ve spent the last year researching the advantages and disadvantages of work-at-home programs for our forthcoming book Undress For Success – The Naked Truth About Working From Home (John Wiley & Sons, March 2009), and here’s what we’ve found.

Telework offers a pull, rather than a push solution to a wide range of problems. It benefits emplolyers, employees, and the community. A strong national telework strategy would increase GNP, reduce the national debt, and bring the balance of trade back in our favor. It would substantially reduce our Gulf Oil dependence. It would reduce traffic jams and the carnage on our highways. It would alleviate the strain on our crumbling transportation infrastructure. It would help reclaim many of the jobs that have been lost to offshoring, and provide new employment opportunities for at-home caregivers, the disabled, and the un- and under-employed. It would improve family life, and emancipate latchkey kids. It would substantially bolster pandemic and disaster preparedness. It would reduce global warming. And it would save companies and individuals billions of dollars.

This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky. These and other benefits were derived from a synthesis of over 250 studies, interviews with dozens of telework enthusiasts and challengers, researchers, venture capitalists who invest in the remote work model, Fortune 500 executives, virtual employers, and dozens of home-based workers in wide variety of professions.

While we’re committed to bringing the work at home trend into the 21st century by dispelling the many myths and stigmas that have held it back, there are some very real inhibitors that need to be overcome such as management mistrust, worker isolation, data security, and concerns about career impact. But companies that have tried telework have proven they can be overcome and that the pros far outweigh the cons. See for yourself:

Advantages of Telecommuting For the Community *

• Reduces our foreign oil dependence

– If the 40% of employees who could work from home did so half of the time (approximately the national average) it would reduce Gulf Oil dependence by almost 60% and save Americans $40 billion at the pumps

• Slows global warming

– Half-time telecommuting could reduce carbon emissions by almost 80 million metric tons a year
– Tougher environmental laws are coming
– Telework offers easy Clean Air Act compliance
– Additional carbon footprint savings would come from reduced: office energy, paper usage (as electronic documents replace paper), roadway repairs, urban heating, office construction, and business travel

• Bolsters pandemic and disaster preparedness

– Three quarters of teleworkers say they could continue to work in the event of a disaster compared with just 28% on non-teleworkers
– Further, with a decentralized workforce there is no World Trade Center or Pentagon-like target to attack. If an attack does occur, fewer people will be effected, economic stability will be maintained, and continuity of operations is assured. [Update, per comment by Gordon Bell, below]

• Redistributes wealth

– Location-independent job opportunities offer better employment options to rural workers

• Higher productivity among teleworkers will increase GDP

• Cost savings from telework will encourage home-shoring and bring back many of the jobs that have been lost to foreign labor

Advantages of Telecommuting For Companies *

• Improves employee satisfaction

– People are sick of the rat race, eager to take control of their lives, and desperate to find a balance between work and life.
– Two thirds of people want to work from home
– 36% would choose it over a pay raise
– A poll of 1,500 technology professionals revealed that thirty-seven percent would take a pay cut of 10% if they could work from home.
– Gen Y’ers are particularly attracted to flexible work arrangements
– 80% of employees consider telework a job perk

• Reduce attrition

– Losing a valued employee can cost an employer $10,000 to $30,000
– Recruiting and training a new hire costs thousands
– 14% of Americans have changed jobs to shorten the commute
– 46% of companies that allow telework say it has reduced attrition
– 95% of employers say telework has a high impact on employee retention
– Almost half of employees feel their commute is getting worse; 70% of them feel their employers should take the lead in helping them solve the problem
– 92% of employees are concerned with the high cost of fuel and 80% of them specifically cite the cost of commuting to work. 73% feel their employers should take the lead in helping them reduce their commuting costs
– Two-thirds of employees would take another job to ease the commute

• Reduces unscheduled absences

– 78% of employees who call in sick, really aren’t. They do so because of family issues, personal needs, and stress.
– Unscheduled absences cost employers $1,800/employee per year; that adds up to $300 billion/yr for U.S. companies
– Teleworkers typically continue to work when they’re sick (without infecting others)
– Teleworkers return to work more quickly following surgery or medical issues
– Flexible hours allow teleworkers to run errands or schedule appointments without losing a full day

• Increases productivity

– Best Buy, British Telecom, Dow Chemical and many others show that teleworkers are 35-40% more productive
– Businesses lose $600 billion a year in workplace distractions
– Sun Microsystems’ experience suggests that employees spend 60% of the commuting time they save performing work for the company

• Saves employers money

– IBM slashed real estate costs by $50 million
– McKesson saves $2 million a year
– Nortel estimates that they save $100,000 per employee they don’t have to relocate
– Average real estate savings with full-time telework is $10,000 per employee per year
– Partial telework can offer real estate savings by instituting an office hoteling program
– Dow Chemical and Nortel save over 30% on non-real estate costs
– Sun Microsystems saves $68 million a year in real estate costs
– Offers inexpensive compliance with ADA for disabled workers
– Saves brick and mortar costs in industries where regulations or needs require local workers (e.g. healthcare, e-tail)

• Equalizes personalities and reduces potential for discrimination

– Hiring sight unseen, as some all-virtual employers do, greatly reduces the potential for discrimination
– It ensures that people are judged by what they do versus what the look like
– Communications via focus groups, instant messaging, and the like equalizes personalities. No longer is the loudest voice the one that’s heard

• Cuts down on wasted meetings

– Asynchronous communications allow people to communicate more efficiently
– Web-based meetings are better planned and more apt to stay on message

• Increases employee empowerment

– Remote work forces people to be more independent and self-directed

• Increases collaboration

– Once telework technologies are in place, employees and contractors can work together without regard to logistics. This substantially increases collaboration options.

• Provides new employment opportunities for the un and under-employed

– 18 million Americans with some college education aren’t working
– More than twelve percent of the working age population that’s disabled (16 million). A full three quarters of unemployed workers with disabilities cite discrimination in the workplace and lack of transportation as major factors that prevent them from working.
– 24 million Americans work part time
– Only seventy-five percent of women, still the traditional primary caregivers, age twenty-five to fifty-four participate in the labor force (compared to ninety percent of men).  Almost a quarter of women work part-time (16.5 million), compared to ten percent of men.

• Expands the talent pool

– Over 40% of employers are feeling the labor pinch; that will worsen as Boomers retire
– Reduces geographic boundaries
– Provides access to disabled workers
– Offers alternative that would have otherwise kept parents and senior caregivers out of the workforce
– Offers geographic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity that would not otherwise be possible
– Over 70% employees report says the ability telecommute will be somewhat to extremely important in choosing their next job

• Slows the brain drain due to retiring Boomers

– 75% of retirees want to continue to work – but they want the flexibility to enjoy their retirement
– 36% of retirees say the ability to work part rather than full time, or to work from home would have encouraged them to keep working – even if it didn’t provide health benefits or meant a temporarily reduced pension
– 38% of surveyed retirees indicated that being able to work seasonally or on a independent contractor basis would have encouraged them to delay retirement
– 71% of retired workers who later decided to go back to work, originally retired because of a desire for more flexibility than their job offered

• Reduces staffing redundancies and offers quick scale-up and scale-down options

– Having access to a flexible at-home workforce allows call centers, airlines, and other to add and reduce staff quickly as needed.
– The need to overstaff, just in case, is greatly reduced
– 24/7 worldwide coverage is easier to staff with home-based help

• Environmental Friendly Policies are Good For Companies
– Sun Microsystems reported that its 24,000 U.S. employees participating in the Open Work Program avoided producing 32,000 metric tons of CO2 last year by driving less often to and from work.
– Office equipment energy consumption rate is twice that of home office equipment energy consumption.
– 70% of employees report they would see their companies in a more favorable light if they helped them reduce their carbon emissions.
– 24% of employees say they’d take a pay cut of up to 10% to help the environment.

• Reduces traffic jams

– If traffic continues to grow at the current pace, over the next couple of decades, drivers in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Portland, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle-Tacoma, and Washington, D.C. will be sitting in daily traffic jams worse than the infamous traffic jams that plague Los Angeles eight hours a day.
– As a result, commutes will take almost twice as long, and you’ll have to leave even earlier to allow for traffic jams if you have to arrive someplace at a specific time, producing a further reduction to our national productivity.
– Traffic jams rob the U.S. economy of $78 billion/year in productivity
– Traffic jams idle away almost 3 billion gallons of gas and accounts for 26 million extra tons of greenhouse gases
– Every 1% reduction in vehicles yields a three fold decrease in congestion

• Prevents traffic accidents

– Half time telework for the 40% of the working population would save more than 2,000 lives, prevent almost 150,000 injuries, and save $23 billion a year in direct and indirect costs associated with traffic accidents.

• Take the pressure off our crumbling transportation infrastructure

– Crumbling transportation infrastructure – new roads are being built to meet needs of 10-20 years ago. Less than 6% of our cites roads have kept pace with demand over the past decade.
– By 2025 we’ll need another 104 thousand additional lane miles – that will cost 530 billion

• Insures continuity of operations in the event of a disaster

– Federal workers are required to telework to the maximum extent possible for this reason
– Bird flu, terrorism, roadway problems, and weather-related disasters are all drivers
– Three quarters of teleworkers say they could continue to work in the event of a disaster compared with just 28% on non-teleworkers

• Improves performance measurement systems

– Drucker, Six Sigma, and management experts agree that goal setting and performance measurement is key to successful management
– For telework to work, employees must be measured by what they do, not where or how they do it

• Offers access to grants and financial incentives

– A number of states, including Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon offer financial incentives for businesses to adopt telework. Other states including Arizona, Vermont, Washington, and Connecticut offer free training to encourage companies to give it a try.

Advantages of Telecommuting For Companies *

• Saves employees money

– Employees save on gas, clothes, food, parking, and in some cases, daycare (provided they can flex their hours to eliminate the need)
– Average savings is $7,000 to $13,000/year per person

• Increases leisure time
– Full time telework results in an extra 5 workweeks of free time a year – time that would have been spent commuting
– The majority of teleworkers report they have more time with family, friends, and leisure.

• Reduces stress, illness, and injury

– 80% of diseases show that stress is a trigger. Because telework reduces stressful commutes and alleviates caregiver separation issues, teleworkers are likely to suffer fewer stress-related illnesses.
– Teleworkers are exposed to fewer occupational and environmental hazards at home
– Teleworkers suffer fewer airborne illnesses because of lack of contact with sick co-workers
– Teleworkers report being able to make more time for exercise
– Anyone who has ever dieted knows it’s harder to stay the course when you dine out. Teleworkers often eat healthier meals and are less inclined to consume fast food lunches.

The Holdbacks To Telework *

• Management mistrust

– 75% of managers say they trust their employee, but a third say they’d like to be able to see them, just to be sure.
– Company culture must embrace the concept at all levels, sweatshop and typing pool mentality has to be abandoned
-From Peter Drucker’s introduction of Management-By-Objectives in the mid-1950’s, to Six Sigma which was popularized by General Electric’s Jack Welch in the 1990’s, setting and measuring goals has long been held as the key to good management.

• It’s not for everyone

– For some, social needs must be addressed. Telephone, email, instant messaging are a solution for some. Innovative solutions such as virtual outings, online games, and even Second Life have proven successful as well. Occasional telework is also a solution.
– Telecommuters must be self-directed
– They should be comfortable with technology or arrangements should be made for remote tech support
– They should have an defined home office space
– Home-based employees need to understand that telecommuting is not a suitable replacement for daycare unless they can schedule work hours around their children’s needs.

• Career fears from ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality

– Some employees cite career fears as a reason not to telecommute. Successful teleworking programs overcome the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue with performance-based measurement systems, productivity versus presenteeism attitudes. Teleworkers who maintain regular communications (telephone, email, instant chat, even the occasional face-to-face meeting) with traditional co-workers and managers find career impact is not an issue.

• Co-worker jealousy

– Employees need to understand why they were or were not chosen for telework
– Employees should see telework as a benefit that is earned, not given
– Standards of selection should be uniform

• Security issues

– Security issues are easy to solve, but must be addressed
– 90% of those charged with security in large organizations feel that home-based workers are no a security concern. In fact, they are more concerned with the occasional work that is taken out of the office by traditional employees who lack the training, tools, and technologies that teleworkers receive.
– Security training should be provided for all employees

• IT infrastructure changes may be necessary

– Teleworkers need access to company systems, software, and data
– Infrastructure changes that support telework improve efficiency for office and traveling employees as well
– Companies need to address remote technical support issues. Off the shelf solutions exist.

Recommendations For Companies Considering Work At Home Programs

• Companies must embrace management by results in order to succeed

• Management and all staff must understand and support telework concept

• Management and employees should undergo telework training

• Companies should have a written telework policy and teleworkers should sign a telework agreement (lots of free samples are available on line)

– legal, safety, and union issues should be addressed

• Program goals should be set and results should be measured regularly

The Latest Telecommuting Statistics

• Five million employees work from home most of the time, another seven million do so at least once a month; another 50 million hold jobs that could be done at home.

• About half of all business are home-based (16 million)

• 42% of U.S. employers say they have allowed staff to work remotely this year – up from just 30% in 2007

• In response to high gas prices, almost one in four employers are planning to offer a telecommuting option for their employees within the next six months (8/08) and 42% already have.

All roads point to telework. As a nation, it’s time to make the road less traveled, our way to work.

* Statistical information contained herein comes from a wide range of studies. For additional information reporters on assignment can email info-at-undress4success-dot-com. Please let us know what publication you represent, the nature of the article, your timeframe, and the estimated date of publication and we’ll help if we can. If you’re under a tight deadline, please call 760-703-0377.



  1. Great job!

  2. Tom,

    Thank you once again for taking the time to detail various aspects of telework. I do have several observations. I am quite interested in the reference to “If the 40% of employees who could work from home did so half of the time (approximately the national average)” come from? More specifically, what are the actual daily numbers relative to the daily commuting public?

    A second observation, perhaps an element of style, in the first part (Pros – much longer than the second part) you are very specific and upbeat regarding each of the benefits. In the second part (Cons) you seem to point out the ‘claimed’ issues but then quickly explain how they can be addressed.

    Finally, and I know you were expecting this, you have no mention that there may be other approaches to explore that might address the “It’s not for everyone” section.

    I hope your comments draws attention to the opportunities while leaving room for new approaches.

    Again, thanks for your contribution.

    Best regards,

    Michael Shear
    Pockets Distributed Workplace Alternative, Inc.

  3. Gordon Bell Says: July 17, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Thanks for continuing to make the case for the “obvious” partial solution to our current economic/energy crisis. Just one observation/benefit that you may also add to your list. As we know, the current administration has a deep seated fear of terrorism uprooting our economic structure, just as it did after 9/11. Telecommuting would be a means of promoting national security through de-centralization of the corporate infrastructure. You touched upon it in your mention of pandemics and disaster preparedness. By spreading your workers out amongst their homes, there is no “World Trade Center” to attack, making it more difficult to terrorists to strike a “centralized” target that could take out an entire company, thus allowing for continued economic stability in the event of another major terrorist attack.


    Gordon Bell

  4. Michael: The 40% figure comes from a study done by Matthews and Williams in 2005 – Telework Adoption & Energy Use. The national average comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – Work At Home 2004 report – “on average, those with formal arrangements to be paid for their work at home logged 19 hours per week at home.” 19 hours is the equivalent of 2.4 days a week.

    With respect to your other thoughts:

    The fact that the list of cons is shorter than the pros is kind of the point of both the post and our blog. I’m not aware of anything we left out. We offer ways to address the known challenges because we assume anyone reading our blog is already interested in telework and wants to know more about how to do it successfully.

    Finally, our site is about telework; that’s our expertise. We’re not against other solutions, they’re simply not our focus.

    Thanks for your interest.

  5. Gordon: Good point. We cover the issue in the book, but didn’t include it here. We added an update. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. The question of home based workers for continuity of operations may be based on an unrealistic assumption that ‘the internet’ will be there when an emergency occurs. A more structured, distributed architecture would provide a greater level of security and performance. We also must understand that the more people working from home, the greater the level of last mile issues for support and performance. I hate to rain on the ‘work from home parade’ but someone must argue the facts more openly.

  7. This from Wikipedia:

    “Internet – The Internet began as the ARPANET, a program funded by the U.S. military. Although highly rumored to be so, ARPANET was not designed to survive a nuclear attack or similar disaster. The Internet is designed with the capability to withstand losses of large portions of the underlying networks, but due to the huge numbers of people using it, it would likely be jammed and unable to handle communication if it suffered a large amount of damage. During a localized emergency, it is highly useful. The loss of electrical power to an area can make accessing the Internet difficult or impossible, however.”

  8. Erika Geiss Says: July 21, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Excellent post Tom & Katie! I think that overall, it seemed like a balanced piece demonstrating the pros and cons of working from home/teleworking. The only con that I think wasn’t addressed, was that beyond the discipline factor, it can also be easy when working from home to work longer hours than one might work if at a physical bricks-and-mortar location outside of the home, although I imagine that’s more likely so for small home-based business owners and independent contractors/freelancers. But, one could also argue that a significant portion of time spent “at work” at an office isn’t really work–it’s at the water cooler, getting coffee, walking back and forth to the central printer etc.

    And, another benefit of working from home…you get to have a more relaxed wardrobe in many cases, which is another cost savings aspect. (I don’t even want to think about how much I used to spend on hosiery before I worked from home.)

  9. Tom Harnish Says: July 21, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    Michael: You write, “A more structured, distributed architecture would provide a greater level of security and performance.” Are you suggesting a totally separate architecture? A network that would parallel the Internet? Why? And what fo you mean by “…more structured, distributed architecture…” specifically?

    You also write, “We also must understand that the more people working from home, the greater the level of last mile issues for support and performance.” Again why? I have a broadband fiber optic carrier (Time Warner) and subscribe to a broadband/dial up service as backup (zNet). How would a remote work center improve on that?

    And you write, “I hate to rain on the ‘work from home parade’ but someone must argue the facts more openly.” That would be great, but so far all I read is opinion.

    There’s no doubt that distributed work centers, like half way houses, will appeal to some. But they certainly aren’t the best answer.

  10. Jerry Green Says: July 22, 2008 at 9:20 am

    I am currently working on my doctoral dissertation, focused on identifying unique needs of teleworkers by comparing their needs to those who work onsite, using a survey based on Herzberg’s two-factor theory. Although my study is based primarily on employee needs, most of what Tom has written I have also found in my literary research.

    I believe that although managers and employees often resist teleworking today, eventually teleworking will become more and more the way people will work. It makes such good sense at so many levels as highlighted by Tom.

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