Telecommuting: Still A Long Distance Away?

Rahm Emanuel has a lot of great ideas to goose the economy. Telecommuting may not be one of them.

Barack Obama’s incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, addressed an audience of business leaders yesterday, promising to seize the crisis. He called the energy crisis of the early 1970s a “missed opportunity” that their administration won’t repeat.


Emanuel promised a major economic stimulus package tout suite–“first order of business” after the inauguration in January. He hit a number of new green economy notes that will sound great to Fast Company readers, such as a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions, and green infrastructure spending on bold moves like mass transit, green energy and smart grids.

He also pushed for universal broadband Internet access to “encourage telecommuting.”

Now, telecommuting is just like apple pie. Working moms love it. The ultratechy, lifehacking, 4-Hour Workweek set loves it. State governments love it. Environmentalists love it. Your dog would love it too. So why hasn’t it really caught on?

According to the latest numbers–released after gas prices spiked this summer–just 17% of Federal employees and 14% of private-sector employees work from home on a regular basis, and most of those who do, do it only part of the time.

The reason may have to do with basic human psychology. A recent survey of executives found that 61 percent believed telecommuters were less likely to advance—even though three-fourths said virtual workers were just as productive as their in-office colleagues. It seems bosses just tend to form better relationships with employees who show up. Savvy employees know that in even the most enlightened companies, you can still earn brownie points by being seen pounding your keyboard late into the night. And in this economy, nobody’s going to risk being the one who asks to work in their pajamas, lest they be told to stay home for good.

Photo Caption: Maybe Emanuel would like to telecommute to his Chief of Staff job from Chicago, so he can stay home with his three adorable kids.

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.