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Are people really working from home?

By JAMES COAKES Published 25th Nov 2014
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The concept of working from home always gets a lot of theoretical attention, in that the merits of this mode of work are always under discussion but it's rarely from a practical standpoint. There are plenty of articles and reports looking at the potential benefits, but far fewer studies that actually look at how many people are working from home, and how efficient the at-home office really is. Even so, surveys show that telecommuting is increasingly popular, and that a fairly large proportion of companies offer the opportunity to at least some of their employees.

Globally, both full-time and part-time telecommuting is on the increase. In the UK, survey results from 2011 showed that 59% of responding employers offered telecommuting options to their employees, a huge increase over the 2006 figure of just 13%. According to the Office for National Statistics, of all people employed in the UK in 2014, 13.9% are working at home. This is the highest rate of at-home workers since recording first started in 1998, at which time the work-at-home rate was 11.1%. In 2014, that 13.9% amounts to around 4.2 million people. It's worth noting, of course, that most people who are working at home are self-employed - around 63% of people fall into this category. Even so, 34%, well over a million people, are employed by an organisation; of the 3% remainder, most are working in family businesses.

Is telecommuting practical for all companies?

Even as many companies of all sizes are getting on board with the work from home concept, some are actually moving in the opposite direction. Yahoo previously had allowed staff to telecommute, but in 2013 banned staff from working at home. Yahoo told its employees that “Being a Yahoo isn’t just about your day-to-day job, it is about the interactions and experiences that are only possible in our offices." However, entrepreneur Richard Branson's response to the news was that Yahoo's move was "perplexing," a "step backward in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever."

In a memo to staff, Yahoo said “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home," but Branson notes that when it comes to the effectiveness of telecommuting, “a big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision.” Many employers, particularly those who had been hired under the assumption that they'd be able to work with flexible in-office hours, were upset. It's true that most tech companies encourage their employees to remain on-site, and offer plenty of office perks as incentive, but Yahoo is one of the few that have actually created and enforced an office-only rule.

Yahoo's move generated plenty of publicity, but it seems that the company's telecommuting ban puts it in an increasingly small camp of organisations that don't provide its employees with that option. Richard Branson probably has it right in saying that “Working life isn't 9-5 any more. The world is connected. Companies that do not embrace this are missing a trick." The increasing desire for better work-life balance, and the connectedness that enables this, will probably continue to drive the move towards telecommuting.

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