Work today is increasingly tied to routine rather than a physical space. Unsurprisingly, more and more, companies in the United States allow their employees to work beyond a specifically designated space.
The number of telecommuters in 2015 had more than doubled from a decade earlier, a growth rate about 10 times greater than what the traditional workforce registered during the same period, according to a 2017 report by FlexJobs.com, a job search site specializing in remote, part-time, freelance and flexible-hour job positions.
Telecommuting might not just be a company perk in the next decade.
Experts, however, quickly point out that telecommuting’s growth faces numerous challenges. Cultural barriers in traditional companies, reliable technology, labor laws, tax policies and the public’s own perception about telecommuting will need adjusting to a more mobile workforce, say labor analysts.
Remote Work Still Considered a Perk
The Flexjobs.com report said the industries offering the greatest possibilities to work remotely included technology and mathematics, the military, art and design, entertainment, sports, media, personal care and financial services. Experts cite a couple of reasons why telecommuting is becoming more common in some industries: a more reliable internet connectivity and new management practices dictated by millennials and how they work.
Among the advantages that companies cite for remote work are cost savings in the absence of a work space, more focused and productive employees, and better work retention. Additionally, in 2015, figures showed that U.S. employers had saved up to $44 billion with the existing almost 4 million telecommuters (working half time or more), the Flexjobs.com report said.
“I’ve been able to see firsthand the increase in productivity by incorporating telecommuting into several companies,” says Leonardo Zizzamia, entrepreneur in San Francisco and co-founder of a productivity and collaboration tool called Plan. “With housing costs in Silicon Valley continuing to rise, telecommuting is the financially savvy way to work for your favorite company.”
Yet remote work is still considered a perk in the majority of workplaces. The greatest proportion of telecommuting positions fall under management, according to the FlexJobs.com report. Managers, however, struggled with overseeing remote workers.
“It used to be that everybody was in (an) office at set hours and if you were a manager you could look up and see your employees working or not,” says Susan Lund, partner at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. “Now it’s different. More companies are moving toward a more flexible work space environment and for managers it’s much more challenging because you need to know what each person is working on and whether they are reaching their goals.”
Workers in the beginning and early stages of their careers will be key to transforming today’s workplace to be more friendly to telecommuting, analysts say.
“Millennials have been working over computers and the internet since they were in early junior high and even younger,” says Brie Reynolds, a senior career specialist at FlexJobs.com. “For them it’s natural and when they come into the workforce they are really pushing it into the mainstream. They are letting employers know that remote work is something that they value, that it’s a way that they would want to work and that they don’t see it as a perk, but as another option for working.”
Working From Home as the Cross-Border Threat
According to a 2017 LinkedIn report, the number of positions filled in the United States in October was more than 24 percent higher compared to the previous year. The oil and energy sector, manufacturing and industrial, aerospace, automotive and transportation sectors reported the biggest growth in jobs, the report said.
“If you look at the data you will find that there are significant talent gaps in many industries,” says Tolu Olubunmi, entrepreneur and co-chairperson of Mobile Minds, an initiative advancing cross-border remote working as an alternative to physical migration. “Those jobs are going unfilled for a number of reasons, and one of them is not actually having available the skills that are needed to the organizations.”
Telecommuting options may help fill empty positions in the U.S., job analysts say.
“When you are hiring remotely it opens you up to a much wider pool of talent than if you are stuck in one geographic area and you are only hiring people who can physically get to your office on a daily basis,” says Reynolds, the Flexjobs.com career specialist.
Technology also can help recruit workers, potentially attracting qualified workers from other parts of the world, as telecommuting seems to be popular at a global scale as well. A 2012 Reuters/Ipsos report showed that about one in five workers telecommute, especially in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.
“Cross-border work allow companies to tap into a greater number of talent and diversity of talent that can help them meet their needs,” Olubunmi says. “It reduces brain drain in certain communities that are seeing their best and brightest leaving and that actually benefits those communities. They have the skill and the talent working elsewhere, but money and services are still being distributed within the community.”
Experts have mixed opinions over the continued increase in telecommuting positions. Some are convinced that technological advancement will allow people to better simulate face-to-face interaction, thus encouraging working remotely. Others say future technology could play a counter-intuitive role of bringing people together in an actual office space.
“One of the big advantages of telecommuting was avoiding congestion,” says Adam Millsap, senior affiliated scholar at the Mercatus Center, a research center at George Mason University focusing on economics. “But autonomous vehicles catch on so that itself could eliminate congestion and encourage people to go into the office again even more. They will cut down commuting time, there will be less accidents which tend to hold up traffic, and the cars will be able to drive much closer together at higher speed, because they will all be communicating with one another, so you could fit more on the road.”
Regardless, opening up a world to U.S. companies should not scare American workers, experts say. “Telecommuting isn’t about taking jobs away from native-born citizens,” Olubunmi says. “This is about improving the economy by letting businesses have a broader pool of talent to pick from, in order to be able to achieve their goals and have better economic growth in general for all.”
At the same time, one shouldn’t assume that foreign workers will be willing to take on American jobs just because they become more accessible.
“If an American firm comes to India and says they will give relatively higher wages for people to work in a call center, those workers might be willing to stay awake through the night,” Millsap says. “But if I am Apple and I want to hire a new software engineer, there is a good chance that a software engineer in Japan, for instance, has already a pretty a good salary and is not going to be willing to take on a job that requires him to have meetings at midnight in his own country.”
Experts agree that people in the labor market need to be more agile at acquiring new skills later in life, including learning how to work remotely. Remote work, they say, should not necessarily be considered a perk, but rather a way of helping employees better manage work-life balance.
“When people are given the flexibility to live and work where they please, it really does increase productivity and allow a diversity of people to engage in the workforce,” Olubunmi says. “Because if in the 19th century, work was about where you went, now work is about what you do, not from where you do it.”