Telecommuting sounds like a dream. Instead of sitting in traffic, you get to spend an extra hour in bed. The coffee is better, you don’t have to listen to the inane jabbering of your coworkers, and if you get through your quota of work early, you’re done for the day, instead of hanging around wasting time to fill up the remaining hours. And while that may be true for some lucky folks, the reality is quite different, especially when it comes to pay and long hours.
“Rather than enhancing true flexibility in when and where employees work,” write the authors of a new study, “the capacity to work from home mostly extends the workday and encroaches into what was formerly home and family time.”
The biggest problem with telecommuting is taking work home. That sounds odd when the whole point of remote working is to take your work home, but the problem starts when the usual workday ends. Even if you’re forced to hang around at the office until your workaholic boss quits for the day, you know when the workday is over. At home, finding work/life balance is tricky, but what you don’t often hear is that those extra hours worked at home often go unpaid.
The new study, from sociologists at the University of Iowa and the University of Texas, compared the earnings of telecommuters and regular, fixed-schedule workers, to find out who earns more. Crucially, they carried out the comparisons at the same employer, so the results would actually be useful. They set out to test whether remote workers are penalized, either for a perceived lack of commitment, for the extra effort required from bosses to manage their flexible schedules, or just plain old sexism: “Women may be more heavily penalized for telecommuting than men since such practices signal women’s reproductive status and competing commitments to family,” write the authors.
The data came from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, from 1989 to 2008. They found little difference in the earnings growth between remote workers and regular office workers. Neither did they find the expected difference between male and female telecommuters. What they did discover, though, is that telecommuters do a lot more overtime, but are not paid for it.
“It doesn’t seem like telecommuting is used by people to replace work hours,” co-author Mary Noonan told Iowa Now. “When people telecommute, they use it mostly to do more work.”
It’s easy to work too much when you’re not in the office. We have email and Slack on our phones, and remote workers might feel they need to prove their productivity more than someone who is in the office all day. Above all, though, unpaid overtime is not seen as overtime when done out of the office, and we just accept it.
“We believe there is more casual acceptance of ‘taking work home’ without additional compensation after working at least eight hours on-site than telecommuting as part of a regular eight-hour workday,” says the study.
Working from home is still viewed by some as goofing off, when really the opposite is more likely to be true. All the benefits listed in the first paragraph are true, as well as the reduced environmental impact of not commuting, and the low cost to employers of allowing their workers to stay at home. It’s just that, right now, this added value is seen as a perk to the worker, not to the employer.
To complete the last part of the telecommuting puzzle, then, employers should either discourage working overtime at home, or compensate the workers who do it. But first, they’ll need to be convinced that overtime is even possible when working from home.