Has the Work-at-Home Revolution Passed Us By?

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Has the work-at-home revolution passed us by? Or are we just getting started?

What the News Tells Us

Reading the news about telecommuting, it’s impossible to tell. 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 percent 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.

Same goes for parents trying to achieve work-life balance. Stay home! No, get face time at the office! 

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

What the Numbers Tell Us 

Looking at statistics doesn’t necessarily make things much clearer. In 2017, 23.4 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 that a lot or a little?

That figure was down a bit from a peak of 24.1 percent in 2015 and another high point in 2010: 23.6 percent.

Now compare that figure of 23.4 percent in 2017 to 2003, when the BLS reported that 18.6 percent of employed persons worked at home. Is a 4.8 percentage point increase in 14 years what we might have expected?

The lens through which people see these statistics may well depend on their own background. The numbers might seem low if you work in fields like management, business, and financial operations, where 37.5 percent of people did some work from home in 2017. The same is true of people age 25 or older who have advanced degrees, of whom 45.6 percent did some or all of their work from home in 2017. Similarly, 32.2 percent of those 25 or older who have a bachelor's degree worked from home at least part of the time.

However, only 12.4 percent of those age 25 or older with a high school diploma did any work at home. The figure for those who didn't complete high school was about the same: 12.5 percent.

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. From 2003 to 2017, the average time spent working at home increased 19 percent from 2.6 hours to 3.1 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.

What the Future Holds

Regardless of whether the pace of change in the last decade and a half 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 did things like take in sewing or make handicrafts (just like today's Etsy sellers), watch other people’s children (like home daycare centers), and run boarding houses (like being an Airbnb host). Men, too, worked at home as farmers and tradesmen.

The way people work has changed in significant ways in the past 200 years ... and it hasn't. Likewise, the way that people will work—and work from home—will continue to change in ways we can't imagine for some and will remain much the same for others.