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Jun 24, 2011
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

As someone who has joined the millions of remote workers who do what they do in a virtual environment, I always perk up when I see data about telework trends.

Here’s one I was not expecting: for the first time since WorldatWork (the not-for-profit organization that is focused on global HR issues including compensation, benefits, work-life and integrated total rewards) 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.

According to Telework 2011: A Special Report From WorldatWork, the teleworking (read, remotely working) population in 2010 was 26.2 million, down from 33.7 million in 2008. This number, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, represents nearly 20 percent of the U.S. adult working population in 2010.

What does a “typical” remote worker look like?

“The decline in the number of people teleworking is likely due to a combination of things,” said Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader for WorldatWork, in a press release about the survey. “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.”

I’m not in love with the term “telework” because it’s somewhat vague and hard to understand. What WorldatWork is talking about, of course, are remote workers – like me – who do their job from home or some other location that is not a traditional office or workplace environment.

And Telework 2011 gave a demographic profile of what the “typical” remote workers looks like: it’s a 40-year-old, male college graduate who works from home. But, although “home” maintained its position at the top of the list of common locations for teleworking in 2010, WorldatWork says that “home” experienced one of the biggest declines as a remote work location from 2008 to 2010, with “satellite center” and “hotel” trending upward, as well as “working while on vacation.”

One more thing about this survey: although it found that the overall number of remote workers had dropped, the frequency of those who telework more than once per month is increasing. In 2010, 84 percent of teleworkers did so one day per week or more, the survey says, up from 72 percent in 2008.

Is telework really a “perk”

I can’t say I’m surprised that the number of remote workers has decreased somewhat, especially since so many managers and executives view it as a luxury or a perk instead of an option to increase employee productivity.

The WorldatWork survey found this to be the case when they asked survey respondents, “In your organization, is being allowed to work remotely considered more of a right or a reward?” Nearly one in three viewed it as a reward or employee benefit – a telling indicator that remote work is still viewed as something outside the mainstream of the normal work process

“Telework is none of the above – right, reward or benefit,” said Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress. “Rather, it is a business power tool, which, if skillfully applied by properly trained experts within a culture of trust, has been associated with impressive increases in employee engagement, productivity, and profitability.”

Amen to that, and I say that not because I work remotely but because so many organizations – like IBM, to use one example – have found it a great tool to not only increase productivity and employee satisfaction, but a way to cut a huge amount of corporate overhead as well.

Distracted workers cost millions, and the perfect office chair

Of course, there’s more than remote workers n the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. Yes, I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Long commutes? Not a problem for the recently unemployed. The Miami Herald had a story this week that touched on something that is happening all over the country — people who are so grateful to have a job that they will put up with a horrendous commute just to have it. “With Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate of 13.4 percent at a record level … commuting has emerged as both a chore and a privilege. Workers unable to find job within a reasonable distance from their front doors are increasingly willing to travel for a paycheck, hiring managers said. But the flip side is that the tough economy, combined with chronic unemployment, have made travel costs an even bigger burden for those forced into long commutes. And for those stuck working far from home, a tight hiring market dims hopes for finding relief with a nearby employer.”
  • Mandating sick days in Seattle. The Emerald City wants to join San Francisco in requires businesses to provide sick days for workers, the Seattle Times reports. Even small business owners seem to be getting behind the plan. “All businesses in Seattle would be required to provide their workers with paid sick days, according to a proposal … The legislation … calls for a sliding scale, with smaller businesses obligated to set aside less time and larger companies required to set aside more. … A number of provisions are intended to provide flexibility for small-business owners, such as allowing workers to swap shifts rather than take paid sick leave. If employers already offer paid time off that equals or exceeds the hours outlined in the sick-leave ordinance, then the paid time off would count as paid sick leave.”
  • Distracted workers costing millions, survey says. Fox Business reports that, “It’s not necessarily your employees checking their personal e-mail or chatting on Facebook all day costing your company money. According to a recent survey, distractions caused by these things, along with badly designed office technology can cost some businesses more than $10 million a year. The survey conducted by software company and research firm uSamp, found that nearly 60 percent of work interruptions involve tools like email, social media, text messaging and instant messaging, as well as switching windows among standalone tools and applications. The survey also found that 45 percent of employees work for only 15 minutes at a time or less without being interrupted, and 53 percent waste at least one hour a day due to various distractions.”
  • In search of the perfect office chair. Finding a good office chair can be like the search for the Holy Grail, but a trade show in Chicago seemed to warm to the task, according to the Chicago Tribune. “At last week’s NeoCon show highlighting the latest in commercial interior design, many of the 40,000-plus attendees spent time sitting, in search of the best seat for their seat. Based on the myriad chair designs displayed … the quest for a truly comfortable office chair continues in earnest … It’s not an easy task, experts say, and involves millions of dollars, starting with extensive research into kinesiology, or the way in which people move. There are also the realities of people themselves to deal with: Some are petite, and more are becoming morbidly obese. Some sit on the edge of their seats when they work, and others lean back. And most workers, ergonomics experts agree, sit too much.”
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.