Article: Does telecommuting improve work-life balance?

Benefits & Rewards

Does telecommuting improve work-life balance?

Organizations are providing new-age ways of working -- flex-timings, work from home, part-time -- A new study has found it might not be the best of ideas for work-life balance.
Does telecommuting improve work-life balance?

In a bid to provide more flexibility and autonomy to their employees, several organisations offer telecommuting and working from home as an option, in hope that employees will be able to strike a better balance between their job and other aspects of their life. But, if the findings of a recent research are anything to go by, telecommuting doesn’t necessarily improve work-life balance.

Sociologists from University of Iowa and University of Texas got together to study the relationship between telecommuting and work-life balance. The study, headed by Mary Noonan, University of Iowa, co-authored by Jennifer Glass, University of Texas, and supported by Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, found that employees who telecommute end up working more hours than their colleagues who never worked from home. The researchers studied data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which surveyed workers periodically between 1989 and 2008. Of the midlife employees who were a part of the study, more than 40% had worked from home at some point. The authors of the study said that it would be too simplistic to conclude that merely working from home can help one improve work-life balance. 

The study found that workers who worked at least a part of their time away from the office ended up working an average of three hours more per week than those who worked from the office the entire time. Furthermore, the extra three hours of work did not result in noticeably increased wages or being paid over-time.

In others words, the researchers claim, that salaried employees who work from home regularly simply extend their working hours, with no significant increase in their pay; effectively leaving them worse off, as it eats into their home and family time more. Mary Noonan, lead author of the study says, “It cuts down on commuting time, and it appears to add more flexibility to the workday. But it can extend the day, and it doesn't get you much more in terms of wage growth... It doesn't seem like telecommuting is used by people to replace work hours. When people telecommute, they use it mostly to do more work.”

The study attributes the increased working hours per week when telecommuting to the rise in pressure to prove their productivity. The study found that employees who work from home feel this pressure, as they cannot physically show they are working, to their colleagues and superiors.

Noonan explains, "There's a lot more stress with some people that if they don't do more, they could lose their jobs, and if they don't do their job, stay connected, the next person will. It's hard when there's anxiety about performing."

The study focussed on salaried employees who had worked from the same employer over the duration of the survey and had chosen to telecommute at least some of their working time. Despite putting in more work hours, employees who chose to telecommute had little to no difference in their earnings, as compared to co-workers who worked in the office all the time. However, on the bright side, the study did find that women employees who worked a 40-hour workweek from home were paid the same as men. Mary says, "Employers are becoming perhaps more and more cognizant that men and women are dividing housework more evenly. Perhaps the employers look at men and women more similarly today than maybe 30, 40 years ago."

The study suggests that since flexible work option is used widely by many organisations today, the onus of discouraging working extra hours, or paying for it, lies on the employer. Furthermore, employees need to communicate to their bosses how much they have worked in order to accomplish tasks while working from home. The findings are extremely relevant to on-going discourse that aims to make work for employees flexible, as it delves into the questions like how much work does one really do when at home, how it impacts the wages, and whether ultimately it helps in achieving work-life balance? It would do organisations all around the world good if they understood this aspect of working from home, and incorporate the factor of extra working hours, thereby designing policies and programmes that actually serve the purpose of working from home. 

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Topics: Benefits & Rewards, Diversity, Life @ Work

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