The early case for telecommuting—made most prominently by Alvin Toffler in his best-selling The Third Wave in 1980—had a strong romantic flavor to it. For futurists like Toffler, the home office would be an "electronic cottage” that might “glue the family together again,” provide “greater community stability,” and even trigger a “renaissance among voluntary organizations.” Forget about bowling alone: In Toffler's future, we'd all be telecommuting together! (Toffler, it must be said, was only popularizing ideas that had been aired many decades earlier. For example, Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, had already speculated in his landmark book The Human Use of Human Beings about how an architect in Europe might use a fax-like machine to supervise the construction of a building in America.)
The business press eagerly swallowed such stories of emancipation through technology; the San Jose Mercury News enthused in 1983, "Home computers are nurturing working mothers.” Back then, it didn't seem unreasonable to expect that the "electronic cottage" might one day allow us, as Karl Marx once famously put it, "to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.” For Toffler and his followers, humans would use computers to get more work done in less time while bypassing the alienating experience of a 9-to-5 city job.
It would be fair to say that Toffler's dream—let alone Marx's—is still a long way off. In some limited form, of course, telecommuting has taken off quite handsomely. Earlier this year, a poll from Ipsos/Reuters found that about one in five workers around the globe telecommutes frequently—a practice especially common in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Even there, many telecommuters worry that the lack of face-to-face contact with their bosses would hurt their chances of promotion. (One caveat on telecommuting research: Each study defines it slightly differently. In this case, it refers to “employees who work remotely from their office, communicating by email, phone or online chats, either daily or occasionally.”) Pollsters didn't ask, but it seems reasonable to assume that few of those workers think of themselves as living in an “electronic cottage” of any kind. One of the reasons for it is that relatively few firms have fully embraced telecommuting. Sure, many permit employees to spend every second Friday working from home, but they still require some face time in the office.
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 of Personnel 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.”
What also doesn't get nearly enough attention is just what it takes to make telecommuters stay on task. As a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal reveals, more and more firms that have embraced full telecommuting are relying on new and sophisticated tools of surveillance to ensure that their employees are not slacking off. The employers might be taking screenshots of their computer activity or checking their browser history (while also monitoring how much time their telecommuting employees spend on each site). If employees are using their home computers for work, their privacy—and that of their relatives—might be collateral damage: Would their employers also peek, if only accidentally, at what they are browsing during the nonworking hours?
Somehow, what was supposed to be an “electronic cottage” has become an “electronic sweatshop.” It's not just surveillance—it's that many employees who telecommute only occasionally end up doing far more work than before their “emancipation.” This, at any rate, is what a recent study published in Monthly Labor Review, a publication of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggests.
Relying on two data-comprehensive sources (the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 panel and special supplements from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey), the study has traced the evolution of telecommuting practices in the United States in the last few decades. It contains many surprising nuggets. For instance, it seems that telecommuters (which this study defines as “employees who work regularly, but not exclusively, at home,” with or without technology or special arrangement with their employer) are less likely to be married. So much for Toffler's “glued families.” But the most interesting finding is that telecommuting, instead of restoring work/life balance, may have resulted in workers doing more work—but from home. As the authors put it, one plausible interpretation of their findings might be that "telecommuting has become instrumental in the general expansion of work hours, facilitating workers’ needs for additional work time beyond the standard workweek and/or the ability of employers to increase or intensify work demands among their salaried employees."
In other words, telecommuters—the majority of whom still go to the office, even if less frequently than their non-telecommuting peers—are in some sort of Catch-22 here: They want to use technology to become more productive and spend more time with their families, but the availability of productivity-boosting technology also makes their managers believe that the employees will get more work done, on weekends or after dinner. The 2008 Networked Workers survey from the Pew Research project offers some strong evidence to back up these claims, having found that “since 2002, working Americans have become more likely to check their work-related email on weekends, on vacation and before and after they go to work for the day.” Perhaps telecommuters’ constant connectivity means that those who physically commute have to check in more frequently, too.
Could it be that the labor-saving gadgets that were supposed to help restore our work/life balance would only make it worse? If so, historians of technology would not be much surprised by this ironic twist. In her classic More Work for Mother, University of Pennsylvania historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan showed how the introduction of supposedly labor-saving devices into the household resulted in women doing ever more work. Gender relations aside, Schwartz's broader philosophical point was both simple and intriguing: The supposed benefits of such devices cannot be assessed in isolation from the broader social, economic, and cultural context in which they are put to use.
So, short of a revolution, we, perhaps, should temper our enthusiasm for what productivity-boosting technology would deliver. As tempting as it might be to think that Google's self-driving cars will allow us to watch films instead of driving, we'd probably be spending this newly gained time glued to some boring spreadsheet. How is that for progress?
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.
Correction, Jan. 2, 2013: This article originally misidentified the Office of Personnel Management as the Office for Personal Management. (Return to the corrected sentence.)