It’s Time to Embrace Full-Time Telecommuting

It’s Time to Embrace Full-Time Telecommuting

Introduction

While not mainstream yet, full-time telecommuting positions are becoming more common and give an employers an edge in recruiting top talent. Many studies have shown that a lot of people would prefer a full-time telecommuting position, as it offers numerous benefits over traditional types of employment [1]. However, there are still many companies, especially the larger ones, that are digging their heels in on telecommuting. Even worse still, are the companies that allowed employees to telecommute but then recalled them back to the office. Several studies have demonstrated the many benefits of telecommuting to both the employee and the employer. In this post, I will outline what some of those are, as well as other ones that I thought of. Telecommuting is the job of the future, and it’s time for companies to start embracing full-time, non-contractual, telecommuting and offering this as an option to employees, at reasonable pay, and without ridiculous constraints of 75% travel (yes, you read that correctly).

Benefits to the Employee

There are many benefits of telecommuting for the employee: it’s easier to manage chronic health conditions; reduced stress levels; geographical preferences are met; and decreased costs. Let’s examine each benefit in detail.

  1. It’s easier to manage chronic health conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012, roughly 50% of US adults or 117 million people (population was 314 million in 2012) had one or more chronic health condition(s). The study defined a chronic health condition as hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, hepatitis, weak or failing kidneys, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Then there are those people that have conditions like fibromyalgia, mental illness, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, etc. that can be as equally debilitating. A full-time telecommuting role would allow someone with a chronic health condition to be able to make their own reasonable accommodations that allows them to work at their full potential. Let’s look at some examples:
    • Panic disorder with agoraphobia, or even anxiety. Working in a traditional office environment is nearly impossible without a ton of medication, which often come with deleterious side effects that make working more difficult (e.g., dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, cognitive impairment, driving impairment, etc.). People with this type of condition generally become permanently disabled. This is unfortunate, because given the right accommodations, people with this condition can flourish just like anyone else. By working from home, someone with panic disorder can take breaks when needed to deal with any panic attacks that may arise. If they need to take emergency medication, take a quick walk, do some yoga, or meditate, they can do it in the comfort of their own home and without fear of judgment from coworkers and bosses. Secondly, those with this condition generally struggle just driving to work because of a driving phobia. By eliminating this part of the day, you have already greatly reduced their stress, which will translate to higher productivity. Thirdly, working from home eliminates a lot of triggers for panic attacks. Things like unexpected noises, an environment that’s too hot, too many people, uncomfortable professional clothing, constant distractions, a face-to-face confrontation, etc. can trigger a panic attack. By working from home, you have a lot more control over your triggers. Again, this translates to higher productivity because there will be substantially less panic attacks. Nearly 1/3 of those collecting social security disability insurance do so as a result of a mental health issue [2]. Allowing for full-time telecommuting can be the difference between being completely disabled vs. contributing to society in most, if not nearly all, of these cases.
    • Menstrual cycles. There are two parts to this that can be an issue: the week leading up to the menstrual cycle (PMS) and the actual menstrual cycle itself. Let’s start with PMS. Up to 80% of women experience symptoms prior to menstruation, and 3-8% of women experience premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a much more severe and debilitating form of PMS. Some of the symptoms include tension, anxiety, depression, food cravings, insomnia, brain fog, headache, fatigue, constipation or diarrhea (or both if you are lucky), etc. And this is just the week leading up to menstruation. Then once it starts, many of these issues continue, and then you might have to contend with cramps, vomiting, migraines, heavy bleeding, etc. for an additional 5-7 days. Furthermore, as a woman ages, many of these issues tend to worsen until menopause arrives. And yes, there are medications that can be taken to alleviate many of these symptoms. But birth control comes with very serious side effects including strokes and other blood clots, and they are not appropriate for every woman. Again, like in the two examples above, there are a lot of home remedies that can be used which help to alleviate some of these problems. The obvious one, is being able to sit with a heating pad on your abdomen. The second, is that if your period is heavy enough, you might need to run back and forth to the bathroom frequently. It’s much less embarrassing to do this in the comfort of your own home, rather than passing by the same people in the hallway multiple times in the span of 30 minutes. The third is that if there are leaks, then you aren’t out in public and you haven’t ruined a good set of clothes. I could continue listing more things that can be done, but you see that I’ve pretty much written a book on this subject :). The benefits of telecommuting for chronic illnesses are not unique to the examples discussed above. If you were to go through other chronic illnesses, you would see that there are many benefits in working from home full-time.
  2. Reduced stress levels. Providing you do not have children running around in the background or live in a noisy environment, nearly everyone experiences reduced stress levels when working from home. In the two examples provided above, both of those medical conditions are greatly aggravated by stress. And most of the chronic health conditions cited by the CDC? Those are also aggravated by stress. The reduction in stress levels comes from the following:
    • No commute. No commute = no traffic, no accidents. Long commute times are associated with an increased risk for stress, and consequently, disease [3-5]. What’s interesting, is that women appear to be disproportionately affected by the stress of long commute times [5].
    • Better work-life balance. Let’s look at a typical current work day. Most people work from 8-5, which is 9 hours. Employers will say that your lunch break is not considered part of the work day, but I would argue it most definitely is. You are still at work during your lunch break, therefore your mind is still on work. Then there is the getting ready for work in the morning, the commute time to and from, and the decompressing at the end of the day. Let’s estimate that adds 3 hours total to your day. We are now up to 12 hours. Working out, showering, and eating dinner in the evening is likely an additional 2 hours. And then hopefully most people are sleeping 8 hours a night. That leaves you with only 2 hours of free time a day, some of which will need to be dedicated to chores, leaving you with even less. The suggested work/break schedule is 15 minutes for every hour of work. Now, while you are at work you cannot really make use of the break and you will have to wait until you get home to complete your daily chores, which chews up your two hours of free time. If you were telecommuting though, you could make use of the break by cleaning the cat’s litter box, throwing in a load of laundry, vacuuming, making phone calls, etc. So not only would those 2 hours at night truly be free time, but you would save an hour of commuting (assuming a typical 30-minute commute each way), and you would save an hour of exercising because you could complete that over your lunch break when you still had the energy to complete it.
  3. Geographical preferences are met. With a full-time telecommuting position, the employee can reside wherever they are happiest. Something that I have found, and I am sure others have as well, is that the lucrative high-paying jobs are often located in an undesirable location (e.g., areas near high crime locations, high cost of living, traffic congestion, noise pollution, etc.). This can lead to numerous health issues down the road, along with the employee leaving the company. Geographic location is very important when considering a job, and generally most people are willing to compromise on this to their detriment down the line. Full-time telecommuting roles fix this problem in its entirety, leading to a happier, healthier, and more productive employee.
  4. Decreased costs. When telecommuting, the employee saves money in several areas:
    • Wardrobe. Professional clothing, especially for women, is very expensive. Plus, it’s well known that the markup on women’s clothing is much higher than that for men. But if you are telecommuting, you can wear whatever you want (providing you don’t have any video conferencing meetings).
    • Car. With no commuting to work, there’s less vehicle maintenance, lower gas usage, and possibly lower car insurance since you aren’t racking up the miles. And with substantially less driving, employees might end up purchasing a smaller, cheaper car leading to more savings.
    • Meals. How many people do you know that bring their own lunch to work? 5-10% maybe, if I had to venture a guess. Most people end up buying lunch at work, and some even do breakfast, dinner, and snacks! Not only is this super unhealthy (leading to increased healthcare costs for the employee and ultimately, the employer) but the costs add up over time. If you are able to telecommute, you can just go to your kitchen and get something to eat, that is likely going to be much cheaper and healthier than what you would’ve purchased at work.
    • Health care. This is a big one, because health insurance is getting more expensive as time goes on. The cost sharing responsibility which used to be largely on the health insurance company in the early 2000’s has shifted to the employee. By telecommuting, employees have more time to exercise and to eat healthier. Plus, they are in their own environments which are tailored to them and their comfort. This likely would translate to savings in health care, since the employees would be healthier overall, and would avoid costly chronic illnesses.

Benefits to the Employer

Obviously there is a lot of benefits for the employee in a full-time telecommuting arrangement. But what about the employer? How do they make out in all of this? The short answer is that they make out just as well as the employee. The benefits of offering full-time telecommuting for the employer include: expanded talent pool and reduced costs.

  1. Expanded talent pool. With full-time telecommuting, you can hire anyone in the world. This greatly expands the talent pool from which employers can hire from. You frequently read articles where employers are stating that they are having a hard time finding top talent. If employers were to embrace telecommuting, you could hire anyone in the world, thus increasing the chances of finding the right employee for the job. This saves numerous costs down the road, of having to rehire multiple people for the same job.
  2. Reduced costs. A lot of this was already alluded to in the benefits of telecommuting for the employee, but I will list them out again.
    • Reduced health care costs. With happier and healthier employees, employers are going to spend less on healthcare. When working from home, people often eat healthier as they are right near their kitchens. Full-time telecommuting even offers the ability to cook your meals fresh everyday! Additionally, if an employee needs to take a break, instead of sitting at their desk, they can go out for a quick walk or jog around the neighborhood, or do some yoga stretches. Both of these things contribute to a healthier employee. The other bonus? People can also utilize their 15-minute mini breaks by throwing in a load of laundry, making phone calls, and running the dishwasher. The result? By being able to take care of chores in real time on your breaks, you end up with more time in the evenings and on weekends that you can dedicate to spending time with friends, family, or on exercising. All of which boost and promote overall health and wellness.
    • Less office space needed. A lot of companies rent out their office spaces, often at a hefty price. When you allow your employees to telecommute, then the need for a large office space becomes obsolete.
    • Less money spent on recruitment. Geographic location can be a big sticking point for a lot of people. Yes, a company might offer a high salary, but is the cost of living outrageous? What about traffic? Is it crazy during rush hour? How does the crime compare in that location versus other locations? Personally, I never really realized how much of an effect a geographic location can have on my well-being. I usually followed the money and the job, irregardless of the location. Well, that came back to bite me big time. The last location I worked in made me absolutely miserable. There was traffic all of the time, the roads were filled with craters, crime was occurring everywhere, the cost of living was absurd, the people were rude, etc. While I loved my job, the geographic location was a deal breaker. So I left. And I am not the only one to leave for this reason. With that being said, it costs a lot of money to recruit people, train them, and get them up and running. These costs would be reduced substantially if people were allowed to telecommute because you would literally never have this problem. Oh, your employee isn’t happy in Wyoming? Then they can relocate to Montana while still keeping their job.
    • Less downtime, more productivity. I feel like a lot of time gets wasted at the office. Not that it’s bad to socialize with your coworkers, but nearly all companies run their businesses as lean as possible (to the obvious detriment of the employee and society). This means that everyone has unreasonable work loads, and there is no time to waste on anything other than grinding away at work. In the office, you have people stopping by all the time, emails, phone calls, social hours, meetings you are only tangentially involved in, seminars, celebrations, etc. All of these things are great at bringing employees together and forming camaraderie and most people genuinely enjoy these interactions. However, it fragments the day, which negatively affects productivity. It takes time to ramp up and ‘get into’ a project and get into a groove. Once you are there, it is more efficient to stay there and finish the task you set out to do. The current model of drop what you are doing 20 minutes in, go to a meeting, and then ramp back up again into a project, results in noticeable productivity losses.

Disadvantages to the Employees

For any job arrangement, whether it be a traditional office or a home arrangement, there are disadvantages to be considered. The most commonly cited disadvantages are: feelings of isolation; missed collaboration and professional opportunities; state tax issues; health insurance complications; undesirable ‘strings attached;’ and feared damage to a career.

  1. Feelings of isolation. This disadvantage is really only a problem for a certain segment of the population: extroverts and possibly ambiverts. In other words, those that enjoy and thrive off of social interaction. By some estimates, these groups of people account for about half of the working population [6]. It’s worth mentioning here, that the bulk of our society, school, and work environments are really only geared towards, and appropriate for, extroverts. While introverts can and do thrive in these environments, it is often more exhausting and draining, which leads to people not performing at their best (i.e., lost productivity and innovation). For those who fall on the more extroverted part of the spectrum, it’s important to consider whether a full-time telecommuting position is appropriate for you, based on your social needs. A better option might be splitting time between a traditional office environment and a home environment. With this type of job arrangement, your social needs are being met, but you are also reaping the advantages of telecommuting discussed above. For introverts and those with social anxiety, full-time telecommuting is likely a very good fit for your personality, and feelings of isolation will likely not be an issue.
  2. Missed collaboration and professional opportunities. Honestly, I think this one is a bit overplayed by employers. In a traditional work environment, the theory is that there is a lot of brainstorming and collaboration opportunities occurring at the places where water and coffee (and sometimes snacks) are served. Additionally, companies, especially the larger ones, also have lots of informal gatherings where people can mingle, network, and exchange ideas. These same spots can also give rise to other professional opportunities. I guess the question really becomes this: are people really brainstorming at these sessions, are they talking about their past weekend, or some combination of both? I would argue that for most people, it’s likely a combination of both. And how many of the brainstorming ideas really come to fruition and lead to something great? I know for me personally, my best ideas have come from me, and not in talking with other people. They have come from reading through the scientific literature and reflecting on what I have read in a quiet, distraction-, and pressure-free environment. I know not everyone is like this. But considering the research, which shows that introverts are responsible for the largest innovations, one has to wonder about the water cooler theory. I think that brainstorming is most effective when someone comes up with an idea on their own, and then deliberately approaches people about their idea. This is a combination of independent thought, combined with an intentional group brain-storming session. This type of arrangement does not require a spontaneous interaction at a water cooler, a coffee area, or an informal gathering of people. You can reach out to people intentionally using Skype or conference calling. Hence, full-time telecommuting is actually not the barrier to collaboration that it is often touted to be.
  3. State tax issues. This is an issue that I haven’t seen mentioned at all, but one I am aware of, and have experienced directly when I completed internships in undergrad. Oftentimes if you reside in one state, but work and get paid in another, then you pay two different state taxes. Usually, you can claim a credit on your resident income taxes for the tax you paid to the state that you worked in. There are some states that have a reciprocity law, where you can live and work in different states and only pay income taxes based on the rate of the state coinciding with your residence. This is the case for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. People live in Pennsylvania (which has a low, flat-rate, income tax) and then work in New Jersey which has more higher paying jobs. If you are able to find a full-time telecommuting job, this is something that you should factor in when negotiating your salary.
  4. Health insurance complications. This is something I haven’t seen mentioned, but it could be an issue. Depending on where you live, and what insurance your employer offers, you might not have any good coverage in your area. This is something that will need to be investigated because if this is going to be an issue, then you are likely going to need to purchase your insurance through the marketplace. Again, this is something that would need to be accounted for in your salary requirements, as it would be a substantial cost to you.
  5. Undesirable ‘strings attached.’ In looking through the full-time telecommuting jobs, there is one thing that has jumped out at me for a lot of them: extensive traveling. I’m talking like 50-75% of your time, which is a lot. Like the traditional office, this is also something that I hope becomes more obsolete in the future. In my opinion, a lot of business trips can and should be, conducted over video conferencing. Similar to women being disproportionately affected by the stress of long commute times, the same is true for business travel [7]. If business travel is not your thing, then be sure to closely examine full-time telecommuting positions for this requirement.
  6. Feared damage to a career. Some people fear that telecommuting might hurt their chances of career advancement. The old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is at play here. People are worried that when telecommuting, their bosses won’t see how hard they are working. I think there is also an implicit bias against telecommuters in assuming that they are lazier than their office counterparts because they have chosen to work at home. This can be perceived as not being a team player. This actually results in the telecommuters having to overcompensate and work even harder than their office counterparts to prove their worth. And if you are a woman and/or minority, you will unfortunately be forced to step up your game even further.

Disadvantages to the Employer

I’ll admit that I actually struggled in thinking up the disadvantages of full-time telecommuting to the employer, so I had to look it up. The disadvantages that I came across are loss of oversight; loss of productivity; security concerns; a lack of brainstorming and collaboration ability; and legal concerns.

  1. Loss of oversight. Honestly, this disadvantage really points to a control issue and paranoia (…and they have therapy for that ;)). When an employer hires an employee, that signals to me that the employer has a certain level of trust with the employee. So why is it easy to trust them in the office but not at home? If the company has a great culture, the projects are engaging, the coworkers are great to work with, and management creates an environment of empowerment and respect, then the employees should want to work hard for the company whether they are at home or at the office. Of course there is always the exception to the rule of a rogue employee that is going to take advantage of anyone they work for, but on the whole, people want to excel at their jobs. So if managers are concerned about not being able to micromanage every minute of an employee’s day, you need to ask yourself why you feel this way, and whether or not you really trust the employee.
  2. Loss of productivity. Again, I am not sure how this would even happen unless you had an employee hell bent on being a jerk. Providing people aren’t tending to children when they should be working, productivity should go up. I know in my experience, my productivity has gone way up because I am less distracted and I have created an environment that maximizes my productivity.
  3. Security concerns. This is a valid one, especially for jobs dealing with company trade secrets and jobs requiring government clearances. This can be mitigated with periodic home office inspections, security software, personnel training, equipment monitoring, and any other protocols needed to cover gaps in security. Obviously there are some government clearance levels where telecommuting would be inappropriate, but that is not the main focus here, as those jobs constitute a small fraction of the jobs out there.
  4. A lack of collaboration and brainstorming. While this may or may not occur, depending on how connected the employee is to their coworkers via other means of communication, it actually doesn’t matter. Many research studies have proven that a higher number of original ideas are generated when people don’t interact with others [8]. I have also found this to be the case in my career.
  5. Possible legal risk. I saw one article mention possible liability issues with having employees working from home. I am not sure what they are getting at here, since you are literally working at your desk. I would expect that there would be a way to write the laws to mitigate the liability risk to employers. I am not a lawyer, so I don’t really have any specific suggestions on how to accomplish this. I was sort of shocked when I saw this as a disadvantage, because I would never think of suing my employer if I somehow got injured while telecommuting. I maintain my office environment, so if I am tripping over cords, getting carpal tunnel because I am using the wrong mouse, etc., I feel that the blame is on me for that.

Conclusions

While the advantages of full-time telecommuting outweigh the disadvantages for both the employee and the employer, that doesn’t mean it’s the right job arrangement for everyone. With respect to the employer, there are several jobs that have certain tasks that must be done on site (e.g., laboratory experiments). But in these cases, the rest of the job could likely be telecommuted. Other situations where this may not be appropriate, is when there is the issue of dealing with sensitive information. With respect to the employee, only those with a high degree of self-control and self-discipline can be a productive telecommuter. Additionally, full-time telecommuting is generally better for those who don’t need a lot of social interaction. Going forward, as the research studies continue to tout the advantages of full-time telecommuting, I think we are going to see more of these types of jobs offered. Not only is it the smart thing to do, but it is what people are looking for in their next role. The option of full-time telecommuting is going to be critical in recruiting and retaining top talent.

Additional Resources

[1] FlexJobs: Your one-stop shop for searching for part-time and full-time telecommuting jobs. Membership is required.

[2] Reddit telecommuting sub-thread 

References

[1] Dean, A. and Auerbach, A. (2018, June). 96% of U.S. Professionals Say They Need Flexibility, but Only 47% Have It. Harvard Business Review. (FREE ARTICLE)

[2] Drake, R. E., Skinner, J. S., Bond, G. R., & Goldman, H. H. (2009). Social security and mental illness: Reducing disability with supported employment. Health Affairs, 28(3), 761-770. (FREE ARTICLE)

[3] Urhonen, T., Lie, A., & Aamodt, G. (2016). Associations between long commutes and subjective health complaints among railway workers in Norway. Preventive medicine reports4, 490-495. (FREE ARTICLE)

[4] Hansson, E., Mattisson, K., Björk, J., Östergren, P. O., & Jakobsson, K. (2011). Relationship between commuting and health outcomes in a cross-sectional population survey in southern Sweden. BMC public health11(1), 834. (FREE ARTICLE)

[5] Sandow, E., Westerlund, O., & Lindgren, U. (2014). Is your commute killing you? On the mortality risks of long-distance commuting. Environment and planning A46(6), 1496-1516.

[6] Cain, S. (2013). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. Broadway Books.

[7] B.R. (2016, April). Why women book their business trips earlier than men. The Economist. (FREE ARTICLE)

[8] Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2015, March).  Why Group Brainstorming Is a Waste of Time. Harvard Business Review. (FREE ARTICLE)

[9] Allen, T. D., Golden, T. D., & Shockley, K. M. (2015). How effective is telecommuting? Assessing the status of our scientific findings. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(2), 40-68. (FREE ARTICLE)

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