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December 31, 2012

How telecommuting threatens the work/life balance

(Continued)

That's because as glorious as working remotely may sound, research shows that it doesn't always reach expectations. The most recent high-profile failure on this front is a one-year experiment run from August 2010 to August 2011 by the Office for Personal Management — a U.S. government agency that runs the nation's civil service — that allowed employees full flexibility over where and when they worked as long as they got the job done. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request by the Federal Times, we know now that a Deloitte report evaluating the pilot program found that OPM senior managers couldn't evaluate performance of their employees, the quality of work deteriorated, and employees had little idea whether they were putting in enough time and effort.

Granted, not every attempt at full-blown telecommuting ends up like OPM's. Aetna, an insurance company, is often held up as a success story: 47 percent of its U.S. employees work from home every day. But there's also a downside to spending so much time at home. Aetna's telecommuters tend to be heavier, and the company now provides an online personal trainer to help them stay in shape.

It might also be that, contrary to some early expectations, telecommuting is not necessarily good for the environment. A 2011 article in the Annals of Regional Science found that, on average, telecommuters end up putting in more travel — on both nonwork-and work-related trips — than those who don't telecommute. (This article defines telecommuters as those who "work at home instead of going to usual workplace" once a week or more.) In other words, that they don't drive to work doesn't mean that they drive less overall. As Pengyu Zhu, the article's author, put it, "the hopes of planners and policymakers who expected the promotion of telecommuting programs to substitute for face-to-face interactions and thus reduce traditional travels remains largely unmet."

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