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Telecommuting numbers decline: blame the economy?

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When the going gets rough, employees want to be more visible, and a bit closer to the office grapevine.

There are billions of mobile devices and personal computers in the world. Companies seek relief from the expenses of facilities maintenance and real estate costs, and employees seek flexibility to work from home. Even the federal government is mandating telecommuting. Yet, a new survey shows the number of teleworkers has declined in recent years. What's going on here?

When the going gets rough, employees want to be more visible, and a bit closer to the office grapevine.

WorldatWork reports that for the first time since it began measuring telework in 2003, the total number of people who worked from home or another remote location for an entire day at least once a month has declined. In its latest report, WorldatWork says the teleworking population in 2010 was 26.2 million, down from 33.7 million in 2008. This number, 26.2 million, represents nearly 20% of the U.S. adult working population in 2010. The findings are based on a national telephone survey of 1,002 adults.

Analysts project that technology, entrepreneurial spirit, and corporate cost-control will continue to fuel a boom in telework in the years to come. But economic storms sometimes tend to get in the way -- the Worldatwork study's authors blame the economy for the apparent decline in teleworkers. The size of the workforce has decreased since the 2008 survey, and, related to that, there has been heightened anxiety about job security. Lack of awareness also inhibits telework.

As Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader for WorldatWork, puts it:

“The decline in the number of people teleworking is likely due to a combination of things. The decline in the overall number of workers due to high unemployment appears to be a factor, along with heightened employee anxiety over job security and a lack of awareness of telework.”

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are currently 153.4 million employed Americans, down from a peak of 155 million in 2008.

That doesn't necessarily mean telework is losing favor, however. WorldatWork also reports that among current workers who do telecommute, they have stepped up such activity. The percentage of people who telework more often than once per month increased. In 2010, 84% of teleworkers did so one day per week or more, up from 72% in 2008.

The report says that the typical teleworker is a 40-year-old, male college graduate who works from home. Although “home” maintained its position at the top of the list of common locations for teleworking in 2010, it experienced one of the biggest declines as a remote work location from 2008 to 2010. Meanwhile, “satellite center” and “hotel” trended upward from 2006 to 2008 to 2010, as did “while on vacation.”

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure