No more telecommuting? Not a problem for most American workers.

First Yahoo!, then Best Buy revoked their employee policies allowing telecommuting, stirring a furor in the blogosphere. The reality is that, for better or worse, few US workers enjoy that kind of flexibility, data show.

Peter Kramer/NBC/AP/File
Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer appears on NBC News' 'Today' show in February to introduce the website's redesign.

The hubbub surrounding Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer's recent decision to suspend telecommuting at the Internet giant had not yet faded when word came this week that Minnesota-based Best Buy, the electronics retailer, now wants its corporate employees, who had enjoyed a flexible "performance-based" management system, to start working at the office.

Judging from the furor over these decisions to revoke telecommuting policies, both made by struggling companies who say they need workers to band together to help pull out of a slump, it may be tempting to think the Dark Ages have descended upon much of the American workforce. The reality, though, is that the share of American workers who telecommute remains relatively small. 

Take Yahoo! Only about 2 percent, or some 180 of its 15,000 employees, is thought to be working full-time from home. Nationally, about 4.3 percent of the American workforce worked primarily from home in 2010 – up from 2.3 percent 30 years earlier, according to the US Census Bureau. About 10 percent of workers, meanwhile, report working from home at least one day a week. (That includes people who are self-employed or who do unpaid work for a family business, so the real number of telecommuters working for a nonfamily business is about half that, estimates Ravi Gajendran, an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois, who has written and researched the subject extensively.)

Who are these telecommuters? And for what kinds of companies do they generally work?

An accurate picture is harder to come by than one might think. The telecommuter stereotype is of a working mom who juggles kids' needs after school and then labors late into the night to finish her work day for a tech company. 

“The profile of who makes up the population of telecommuters is somewhat murky because different research entities define the term differently,” says Mr. Gajendran. “Researchers have had to triangulate and combine studies to get a picture they can understand. No one alone sums it all up in a satisfying way.” 

A profile by Telework Research Network, an independent research firm that generally backs flexible workplaces, paints the typical telecommuter as a 49-year-old, college-educated, salaried, nonunion employee in a management or professional role, earning $58,000 a year at a company with more than 100 employees.

Gajendran and MaryAnne Hyland, associate professor of resource management at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., fill in other details. They say telecommuters are typically between 35 and 54, slightly more likely to be male than female, and more likely to be white than Hispanic or black. About a third of telecommuters live in households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more, they add. 

Though the overall number of telecommuters is relatively small, the rate of growth of telecommuting appears to be picking up. The number of workers who regularly telecommute grew 61 percent from 2005 and 2009, according to a 2011 Telework study, “The State of Telework in the US: How individuals, businesses and government benefit.” Telecommuters will total 4.9 million by 2016, a 69 percent increase from now, the study forecasts. 

Telecommuters – originally dubbed "lone eagles" by the media – began to increase in numbers in the early 1990s in then-remote areas of the Southwest such as Sedona, Ariz.; Santa Fe and Taos, N.M.; and Park City, Utah. The practice became attractive to professionals who wanted to escape big-city traffic, density, and crime.

But the numbers have not matched some early predictions because not every company implements telework well and not every employee is a good teleworker. As with many things, “the devil is in the details," says Ms. Hyland at Adelphi University. "The type of work, the amount of telework, the company culture, and the work style of the employee all can affect the success of a telecommuting arrangement." 

Not every kind of company can benefit from telecommuting. Construction firms, companies in service industries such as restaurants and hotels, and assemblyline manufacturers are some obvious examples. Those that can benefit often have large sales forces who work remotely to be closer to their customers.

“It’s not really the industry so much as the type of work within the industry that can be done through telecommuting,” says Hyland. In recent weeks, she says, Jet Blue has expanded its use of reservation agents who telecommute, and a Washington law firm has expanded its use of part-time, at-home lawyers.

Industries that best accommodate telecommuters are those with a higher proportion of knowledge work jobs, such as information technology, finance, media, and public relations, says Gajendran. “Even in manufacturing and medical companies, the midlevel and higher administrative jobs can work well,” he says.

The federal government has also been trying to expand telecommuting among its workers, in part for an unusual reason – emergency planning, Gajendran says. “The federal government has been supporting legislation for this because an administrative agency could [withstand] a terrorist attack to any one location this way,” he says, noting the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. In December 2010, the director of the US Office of Personnel Management cited this rationale in a memo about the new law:

“The Act provides a framework for agencies to better leverage technology and to maximize the use of flexible work arrangements, which will aid in recruiting new Federal workers, retain valuable talent and allow the Federal government to maintain productivity in various situations – including those involving national security and other emergency situations.”

The high-tech industry at large is not likely to follow the lead of Yahoo!'s Ms. Mayer, says Charley Polachi, a partner at Polachi Access Executive Search based in Framingham, Mass. Mayer “has her hands full trying to turn around a mature work force with a lot of entitlement issues. This argument [over telecommuting] can go both ways depending upon the maturity – not age – of the workforce and the tasks they handle," Mr. Polachi says.

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