The Work-at-Home Revolution That Wasn't

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The work-at-home revolution hasn't seemed very revolutionary after all. Sometimes it feels as though the revolution was more like a small uprising, with only a few companies and individuals taking part.

It's also possible that the revolution is only beginning to find its footing and the telecommuting future we were all told was coming is still likely to happen.

What the News Tells Us

If you're keeping up with news stories about working from home, you may be finding it difficult to tell where the revolution stands. For companies that are just getting off the ground, hiring people who work from home can be a significant cost saving. And some large companies like Dell encourage their employees to work from home for just that reason; Dell wants 50% of its employees to be telecommuting by 2020.

But for every Dell or startup, there's a company like IBM or Google that is requiring employees to come into the office or discouraging working from home.

What Workers Care About

Workers trying to achieve work-life balance may also be conflicted about whether they should work from home. If they stay away from the office too much, they might worry about failing to make personal, face-to-face connections with their higher-ups and colleagues and about being seen as less crucial to the operation than their coworkers who are always at their desk. And those worries might lead them to believe that out of sight will mean out of mind when it comes time for a promotion.

On the other hand, working from home can make life significantly easier and more rewarding: There's no commuting stress, and you can have more "face time" with your loved ones. And if you have the ability to push yourself to get work done even when the boss is nowhere in sight, you can be just as productive—if not more productive—at home as you would be in the office.

What the Numbers Tell Us 

In 2018, 24% of workers in the United States did some or all of their work at home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That figure was down a bit from a peak of 24.1% in 2015 and up from 23.4% in 2017.

Now compare that figure of 24% in 2018 to the one for 2003, when the BLS reported that 18.6% of employed persons worked at home. A 5.4 percentage point increase in 15 years doesn't seem like all that much.

The higher someone's level of education, the more likely they are to work from home. Of people aged 25 or older who have advanced degrees, 42% did some or all of their work from home in 2018. (Nonetheless, that figure was down from 45.6% in 2017.) However, only 12 percent of those aged 25 or older with a high school diploma did any work at home in 2018. (That figure was down slightly from 12.4 percent in 2017.)

The actual time spent working at home each day hasn't increased dramatically. From 2003 to 2018, the average time spent working at home rose from 2.6 hours to 2.9 hours.

The acceptance of telecommuting within organizations has generally been 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.

What the Future Holds

It may be that employers and workers are still getting used to the idea of people working from home. The results of a survey of U.S. workers by Randstad US that were released in June 2018 indicated that 80% liked working outside the office—either at home or another location—during flexible hours because they're more productive and creative and feel greater job satisfaction. And 66% of workers said they prefer to occasionally work from home or another place besides the office. Nonetheless, 62% said they favor working in the office, and that figure increased to 65% among those aged 18 to 24.

Sixty-six percent said they liked the option of working outside the office but were unable to do so, while only 35% said their employer-provided them the necessary technology to work from home. And just 36% said they were allowed to work from home whenever they wanted.

These responses suggest that workers like the option of a flexible workspace more than they do the reality of working outside the office on a daily basis and that managers and owners haven't readily embraced the flexible working arrangements employees say they want.

In the coming years, if employees can convince managers and owners that workplace flexibility leads to greater productivity and company loyalty, the numbers of people working outside the office will bump up a bit. But unless there's a sea change, it seems likely that workers who spend the majority of their time at home will continue to be in the minority.