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What telecommuters like and dislike about their jobs.

Telecommuting has become an important component of modern working conditions. A survey by Link Resources, Inc., found that approximately 26.6 million Americans are engaged in job-related work at home. An estimated 10 million of these people operate their own business, and another 5.6 million work at home for somebody else. More than 500 large U.S. business corporations have formal work-at-home programs, with nearly one million employees participating. For example, a joint state-AT&T of Phoenix program allows 134 workers to telecommute at least once a week.|1~ In addition, many small businesses allow selected workers the chance to perform some of their work at home.

Telecommuting, in the context used here, refers to performing job-related work at a site away from the office, then electronically transferring the results to the office. The term work-at-home employees includes all persons who work at home, whether or not they transfer work electronically. Here we will sometimes use the broader term work-at-home employee to include telecommuters. In 1992, the United States workforce included 30 million telecommuters. This estimate is based on a definition of the term telecommuter that includes freelance creative workers, people who operate businesses out of their homes and contract workers.|2~

Several interacting economic developments and social forces point toward a steady growth in the number of work-at-home employees. Many baby boomers are now well-established in their careers and prefer to spend more time at home with their families. The increasing number of dual-career couples often leads to businesses at home as couples attempt to balance the demands of career and family. A large number of women have chosen to drop out of the workforce temporarily to concentrate on child-rearing. For some women (and some men), working at home offers an option for maintaining a career and family simultaneously. Women now account for 70 percent of all home-based, owner-operated businesses.|2~

Telecommuters include individuals engaged in a diverse group of occupations. Among them are white collar workers such as computer programmers, claims adjusters, sales representatives, and even managers who spend some time working from home or satellite locations.|3~ Many workers choose the telecommuting option because of convenience based on job tasks, rather than just because working at home can facilitate child care. Other reasons for choosing the telecommuting option include a desire to avoid long commutes and traffic congestion, and adding to the pollution problem.

The wide availability of low-cost office equipment such as personal computers, modems, photocopiers, fax machines, and voice mail allows people to perform work at home that previously was confined to company premises. Finally, increasing discontentment with long hours away from home, including lengthy commutes, has created a ground swell of people ready to perform at least some of their job duties at home.

Organizations are using telecommuting to solve staffing, space and other business problems that include keeping motivated achievers away from the distractions of other workers. Many enthusiastic applicants welcome the chance to work at home in jobs such as insurance claims specialist, computer programmer, and data-entry specialist.

Employee Survey

A survey of work-at-home employees was conducted in order to obtain fresh insight into what they perceived as the strong and weak points of their job. In addition, a need existed to integrate this new information with existing research and opinion about the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting.

The participants in the study were part-time workers for The NPD Group Inc., a national marketing research firm with headquarters in Port Washington, New York. The company was chosen because of its on-going telecommuting program and the willingness of its top management to participate in research about the job satisfaction of telecommuters. Job satisfaction data were collected during June and July of 1990. Productivity data analyzed for the study were available from company records compiled for three years previous to the study.

All of the participants were data-entry specialists, also referred to as "home-coders." The group was chosen because it represented the one group of employees in the company that was given the opportunity to telecommute. The fact that the group was homogeneous offered the advantage of a more controlled study. (The researchers recognize, however, that a homogeneous group has limitations in terms of making generalizations from the sample.) Home coders essentially transfer raw data from consumer diaries submitted by panelists associated with the market research firm. Panelists are much like a member of a focus group except that they make judgments independently. Raw data are entered into a computer for later analysis by the professional staff. "Coding" is the process of referring to a manual to properly categorize a response. The process is one step beyond pure data entry, but requires only a few moments.
Figure One

Demographic Characteristics of Work-at-Home Employees Compared
With In-House Employees

Demographic Characteristic Group (34 each)
 Work-at-Home In-House
 n % n %

Mean years of experience 3.38 8.73

Number working full time 5 14 28 82

Mean hours worked weekly 20.2 35.8

Some college or more education 20 59 11 32

High school graduate or less 14 41 23 68

Number female 33 97 34 100

Number with partner at home 33 97 18 53

Number with children at home 34 100 14 41


Questionnaires were mailed to all 50 of the firm's telecommuters. Thirty-four (68 percent) responded. Questionnaires were anonymous and were mailed back to the senior author of this study. The questionnaire included questions about the participant's background, a standard job satisfaction survey, and five satisfaction questions about telecommuting. The basic measure of job satisfaction was the short form of the Minnesota Job Satisfaction Questionnaire. The questionnaire is a standard measure of job satisfaction that has been used in numerous TABULAR DATA OMITTED TABULAR DATA OMITTED TABULAR DATA OMITTED studies.|4~ The short form of the questionnaire contains 20 items relevant to a number of job factors. Respondents indicate their relative satisfaction on a 5-point Likert scale: 1-very dissatisfied; 2-somewhat dissatisfied; 3 neutral; 4-somewhat satisfied; and 5-very satisfied.

The score on the general satisfaction subscale is the sum of the 20 ratings and can be interpreted as a composite of various facets of job satisfaction. The manual indicates that the internal consistency measures for the overall satisfaction scale on the basis of a wide variety of occupational groups produces a median reliability coefficient of .90. The reliability coefficient for the present study was .86. The mean satisfaction for the overall scale was 74.85, based on a sample of 1,723 individuals (as reported in the manual).

A work arrangement subscale was added as follows:

* The opportunity to schedule my own working hours

* The opportunity to take care of family and personal responsibilities.

* The opportunity to lead an enjoyable lifestyle.

* The amount of time spent for pick-ups or deliveries of work to supervisors.

* The number of hours required to work each day.

In addition to the 25 questionnaire items, participants were given the opportunity to write in comments about the advantages and disadvantages of working at home. The purpose of these questions was to provide additional insights into employees' attitudes to company managers.

Nearly all of the 34 respondents were women with children at home. The majority of these women worked part-time. A demographic profile is presented in Figure One. The profile compares the 34 at-home workers with in-house personnel who also performed data-entry and coding. The 34 in-house employees represented the number who returned the questionnaires. (Company officials had randomly distributed questionnaires to a group of in-house, data-entry specialists.)

Quantitative Findings

An important quantitative finding is that the work-at-home and work-in-house employees showed virtually the same level of satisfaction on the overall measure of job satisfaction. Their scores were also quite similar to the national norms for the questionnaire. However, the two groups responded differently to six questions, as shown in Figure Two. The work-at-home groups were less satisfied with (a) being able to keep busy all the time, and (b) the number of hours required to work each week. Apparently, the telecommuters wanted to work more than an average of 20 hours per week.

The work-at-home group was more satisfied with (a) the general working conditions, (b) the opportunity to schedule their own work, and (c) the opportunity to take care of family and personal responsibilities.

Productivity was measured from company records developed for the purpose of tracking the output of work-at-home employees. Records were kept of the number of transactions per hour for each research project being conducted by the firm. The productivity of the telecommuters was measured by tracking eight projects that were moved from in-house to work-at-home status. The average performance for the next two years was compared with the productivity figures when the project was moved off company premises, as shown in Figure Three. After analyzing company figures, an average 29.9 percent productivity increase was found for the eight projects moved to work-at-home status. The productivity increases ranged from 15.7 to 41.5 percent.

The productivity increase must be interpreted cautiously. One possibility for the increase is that telecommuters can work more intensely for approximately 20 hours per week. The fact that telecommuters are demographically different from in-house employees might suggest that psychological factors, such as motivation, contributed to productivity increases.

What Telecommuters Like

The advantages of working at home, as perceived by this group of data-entry workers, can be clustered into nine categories. A tabulation of these findings is presented in Table 4.

Many telecommuters perceived working at home as an opportunity to better manage home demands and schedule their own work. If people perceive that working at home helps people balance work and family demands, telecommuting will open up new labor pools. A public announcement of telecommuting openings often leads to a flood of applicants. An executive from one company was interviewed on television about his company's work-at-home program. He stated that a steady stream of prospective telecommuters wrote and telephoned the company for more than a year.|4~

Among the other types of satisfaction cited by the telecommuters were autonomy in planning tasks, convenience in avoiding commuting, and economy in saving work-related expenses. There are several major groups of potential employees for whom these factors are particularly important. One of these groups is caretakers, people with the responsibility of caring for children or other family members. A typical comment made by the participants was, "I need to earn money. But it doesn't pay to hire somebody else to take care of my family. I want to be at home."

TABULAR DATA OMITTED

Another group of potential telecommuters is workers age 55 and older. The older workforce reflects not only early retirements, but also a significant number of people who have amassed experience and capital for home-based work and can afford its convenience. Further, we are seeing firms use independent contractors. (The company participating in this study hires part-time workers, not independent contractors.) These freelance, self-employed workers tend to be highly skilled, and can be hired as needed for time-limited projects. The knowledge, skill and home-based status of free-lance workers can result in cost-savings for employers.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991 requires that firms provide accommodations for the employment of people with physical and mental disabilities. Workers with physical disabilities are often well motivated and welcome the opportunity to hold jobs. Although federal law now requires that people with physical disabilities be given the opportunity to be mainstreamed, it is likely that many would welcome the convenience of working at home.

Meeting Family Demands - The opportunity to supervise children while working, and to meet other family demands, is clearly the number one advantage of working at home as perceived by the telecommuters in this study. A typical write-in comment was, "The most important advantage is my children. I'm home when they are even if I'm working. If they're ill, I can still care for them." Another respondent wrote, "Personally, I would not work outside the house. This gives me the opportunity to be here for my children. I like working at home--for now!"

The demographic characteristics presented in Figure One pinpoint why telecommuters are so concerned about child care; nearly all have children at home. A growing number of companies, including Quaker Oats Co., regard work-at-home programs as a flexible work option that facilitates the integration of the work and family demands.|6~

Self-scheduling of Work - The opportunity to schedule one's own work was another frequently mentioned advantage of telecommuting. Often this scheduling was regarded as important because it allows for fitting work around child care. Included in scheduling is being one's own boss. One telecommuter wrote, "Set your own pace within the 24 hours given |to get the assignment completed~. Come and go as you please."

A related advantage of telecommuting is that it offers the opportunity to return to employees the power stemming from ownership of the tools of production that they possessed before the Industrial Revolution. One major effect of the Industrial Revolution was to shift the locale of work from the home to the factory. In the process, the workers were separated from the ownership of work tools. It has been claimed that the reverse shift back to working at home will enable many workers to become once again owners of their workplace and work tools. The result will be a decrease in their feelings of powerlessness and alienation.|7~ (In the study at hand, the participants did not own their personal computers, but they did own their office furniture and telephones.)

What Telecommuters Dislike

The disadvantages of telecommuting, as perceived by the study participants, can be clustered into ten categories.

Interruptions and Distractions -- The problem most clearly identified, work interruptions, is paradoxical. The telecommuters value their job because it allows them to take care of children, yet they complain that children interrupt their work. The interruptions, however, also stem from friends, relatives, neighbors, and telephone calls. The interruptions are seen as distractions that make work more difficult. One mother listed the key disadvantage as "keeping the kids in line while I work!"

Others have noted that work-at-home arrangements can fail as a substitute for day care itself. Kathleen Christensen, director of the City University of New York's National Project on Home-Based Work, observes: "It's a myth to assume that a person can pursue work involving any level of concentration and take care of preschool children at the same time."|8~ It is particularly difficult to concentrate on a demanding task while caring for children between one and seven years of age. Work that requires intense concentration often has to be done while a child is napping.

Difficult and Unfavorable Task Demands - Included here is a variety of causes of potential job stress. Among them are uneven work flows (sporadic, rush work), traveling back and forth to the supervisor to pick up work, monotony, working late at night, and calls from the supervisor at any time from early morning until late at night.

Pointed complaints were made about limited benefits. (This is true although, as part-time workers, they all knew they would not receive full benefits.) The most extreme negative comment was, "No paid vacation time, no sick days, no benefits whatsoever. Not really fair, right?" Complaints about the lack of benefits by telecommuters themselves reinforces the concern of some labor union officials that workers-at-home who are contract workers are exploited financially. Telecommuters often lose all of their benefits and work long hours to earn good pay. Part-time employees who work on company premises, of course, are subject to the same type of "exploitation."

Lack of Separation between Work and Home - The category of "blurred distinction between home and work" refers to such problems as never really leaving the job because the work is always nearby. A college graduate wrote, "The day never ends. If I don't organize my time properly, I wind up doing bulk of my work in late evening. The child comes first, husband second, work third, household chores fourth, me--last." Having the tools of work as close as the den can foster workaholism, even among data-entry workers. As one study participant said, "If I'm not at the computer, I'm not making money."

Blurring of the boundaries between work and home can contribute to negative stress. For many employees, the journey to and from work provides a buffer of time and space between the home and the workplace. The buffer provides an opportunity for "cooling off" and prevents the transfer of stress from one life sphere to the other.|9~

Status and Spillover Problems -- The category of "others not taking your job seriously" points to the status problem sometimes suffered by home workers. Family members and friends are more comfortable interrupting a person at home than interrupting a counterpart on company premises. One woman noted, "Because I'm working out of my den, people don't think I have a real job. They think I can stop my work anytime to chat or do them a favor."

A status problem of a different type is that telecommuters are sometimes not taken seriously by their own organization. Because they operate primarily out of their homes, telecommuters may not be perceived as candidates for promotion. For example, they may be excluded from consideration to promotion as a supervisor of other telecommuters. Working at home can also lead to career retardation because it shuts off the opportunity to make the type of personal contacts necessary for advancement. J.A. Young reasons that some telecommuters may loose the benefits of staff interaction and the knowledge that is passed along informal channels and direction observation.|10~

A final category that requires elaboration is "Unfavorable spillover to home life." One person objected to the high utility bills resulting from working at home; another felt she was falling behind in her housework; and another was fatigued from running a household and running a job in the house. It is also difficult for family members to judge when the telecommuter is working or not. For example, if the telecommuter leaves the work area to get a cup of coffee, a family member may engage him or her in conversation. The telecommuter appears distant because he or she is mentally still at the keyboard. The relationship between the two people is thus temporarily strained.

Management Implications

The write-in comments from the work-at-home people in the study, along with the job satisfaction survey results and the productivity data, have several implications.

First, the overall job satisfaction of telecommuters is likely to be as high as that of in-house workers. However, telecommuters will probably be appreciative of the opportunity to work at home while still taking care of family responsibilities.

Second, telecommuters are generally highly productive. One reason might be that they earn money only when they produce. Data-entry workers who operate out of a conventional office also may receive incentive pay, but they usually draw a base salary that serves as a floor to earnings.

Some modest form of company-paid benefits would be a potential morale booster for part-time telecommuters. Perhaps these benefits could be tied to seniority. Several annual days of paid sick leave and vacation would be highly appreciated by work-at-home contract workers.

Many telecommuters have young children at home who can be distracting and can cause stress. These workers would welcome instruction about how to manage the job at home while responding to the needs of children.

Telecommuters also may need assistance in managing their job-at-home in general. Skill development is needed in such areas as teaching others to respect your job at home, dealing with intermittent work flows, keeping work life and home life separate when working at home and continuing to network internally although spending much time working at home.

1 Donald C. Bacon, "Look Who's Working at Home," Nation's Business, October 1989, 21; Dennis Hayes, "'Commute' by Computer," USA Weekend, March 27-29, 1992.

2 Christine Scordato and Julie Harris, "Workplace Flexibility," HR Magazine, January 1990, 77; Connie Koenenn, "Telecommuting: A New Idea That Looks Better Than It Is?", Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1988, V1.

3 Dori Sera Bailey and Jill Foley, "Pacific Bell Works Long Distance," HR Magazine, August 1990, 50-52.

4 Richard D. Arvey, Thomas J. Bouchard Jr., Nancy L. Segal, and Lauren M. Abraham, "Job Satisfaction: Environmental and Genetic Components," Journal of Applied Psychology, April 1989, 187-192.

5 Personal communication with Denis L. Conway, Senior Vice President, Operations, The NPD Group, Inc., June 1990.

6 Scordato and Harris, "Workplace Flexibility," 75-78.

7 Boas Shamir and Ilan Salomon, "Work-at-Home and Quality of Working Life," Academy of Management Review, July 1985, 461.

8 Quoted in Stuart Newman, "Telecommuters Bring the Office Home," Management Review, December 1989, 41-42.

9 Shamir and Salomon, "Work-at-Home and Quality of Working Life," 459.

10 J. A. Young, "The Advantages of Telecommuting," Management Review, July 1991, 21.

ANDREW J. DuBRIN, Ph.D., is a professor of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Business and an author of many trade books, text books, and research articles. He is also a licensed industrial psychologist, consultant, and speaker.

JANET C. BARNARD, Ed.D., is an associate professor of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Business and a frequent contributor to management literature. She specializes in research about small business and provides consultation services to them.

Both DuBrin and Barnard have offices in their home and have experienced the joys and frustrations of working at home.
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Author:DuBrin, Andrew J.; Barnard, Janet C.
Publication:Business Forum
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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