Working at Home: Trends and Perceptions

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Has the work at home revolution passed us by? Or are we just getting started? Reading the news about telecommuting it’s impossible to tell. The pendulum swings from reports of companies like Xerox that have 8,000 full-time telecommuters to Marissa Meyer’s well-cover pullback on telecommuting at Yahoo!

Same goes for parents trying to achieve work-life balance. Stay home! No, lean in! 

At a time in the history of the world where life seems to change at lightning speed, the question isn’t whether there is a growing move toward working at home. It’s about how fast it’s changing, if that is what we expected and what that means for each of us.

What the Numbers Tell Us 

Looking at statistics doesn’t necessarily make things much clearer. In 2015, 24 percent of workers in the United States did some or all of their work at home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Would you consider 24 percent a lot or a little?

The lens through which people see these statistics may well depend on their own background. It might seem a low number, if you work in fields like management, business, and financial operations where 38 percent people do some work from home. Same is true of people age 25 or older who have bachelor’s degrees of whom 39 percent do some or all of their work from home. People holding multiple jobs (aka moonlighters) are also more likely to work at home than are  single job holders—36 percent compared with 23 percent.

However, only 14 percent of those with no college and a high school diploma do any work at home. And only 11 percent of in administrative and support positions worked at home. If you're among these folks, 24 likely seems a high number. 

Now compare that figure of 24 percent in 2015 to 2003 when BLS reported that 19 percent of employed persons worked at home. Is a 5 percent increase in 12 years what we might have expected?

In 2003, the Pew Research Center studied how broadband connections change online life. It found that just 12 percent of Americans, or 24 million people, had broadband internet in their homes at that time. Though that number might seems small now, it was up from 6 million people just 3 years earlier in 2000. The study showed those people spent less time working in offices and more time working from home. It found that one third of those with broadband telecommuted. While there was certainly no expectation that growth in telecommuting would keep pace with the growth in broadband, it did seem that a new era was dawning.

The number of people who work at home may not have increased as dramatically as anticipated, but the actual time spent working at home has grown significantly. Between 2003 and 2015, the average time spent working at home increased 26 percent from 2.6 hours to 3.2 hours.

And the acceptance of telecommuting within organizations is certainly on the rise. In 2016, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) reported that 60 percent of the organizations it surveyed said they allowed telecommuting, up from 20 percent in 1996.

There's More to Working at Home Than Telecommuting

Regardless of whether the pace of change in the last decade is more or less than expected, the fact is telecommuting is not the only way parents have worked at home. It’s easy to think that the Internet gave birth to the work-at-home parent. Yet, long before the word telecommute was coined in 1974 (according to Merriam-Webster), parents of both genders worked at home. Women, in particular, did things like take in sewing or making handicrafts (just like today's Etsy sellers), watching other people’s children (like home daycare centers), run boarding houses (like being an Airbnb host).

Men too worked at home as farmers, merchants and tradesman.

While all these occupations may sound old-fashioned, this just shows that the way people work has changed in the last 100 years...and it hasn't. And likewise the way that people will work and work from home will continue to evolve. There are any number of ways to carve out a living from home: working as a telecommuter for a big company, being a remote call center agent, signing on to the gig economy and picking of short tasks or direct selling products like Avon.