Telework controversy: Are 17% of teleworkers unabashed slackers?

CareerBuilder.com survey found that nearly two-thirds of telecommuters aren't putting in a full day

A recent report claims that 17% of telecommuters work less than one hour a day. That's bogus, say telework advocates who are taking to web sites, blogs and other social media to refute the findings.

The source of the controversy is CareerBuilder.com, whose surveysays two-thirds of telecommuters are coming up short of a full day's work. When asked how much time they spend working on a typical full-time day, just 35% of telecommuters said they work 8 hours or more. Another 40% said they work 5-7 hours, 8% said 2-4 hours, and 17% said they work 1 hour or less. CareerBuilder.com identified the survey respondents as full-time employees who telecommute at least on some days.

The top distractions cited are: household chores (31%), TV (26%), pets (23%), errands (19%), Internet (18%), and children (15%).

Could there really be that many slackers in the world? And if so, how could they possibly be getting away with it?

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CareerBuilder.com's survey results are at odds with many other studies on teleworking. Typically, teleworkers report spending more time working at home than they do in an office environment. Time that would have been spent commuting is often spent doing work instead.

Productivity climbs, teleworkers say: In a 2011 survey from Telework Exchange, 76% of employees polled said they accomplished more while teleworking than they would have in the office.

"Year over year, our internal surveys have shown just the opposite" of the CareerBuilder.com survey results, wrote Susan Rodgers, senior manager for workplace strategy at AT&T, in a forum on LinkedIn. "We've also been able to back up our survey results with concrete data, from our time reporting and other HR systems. Not only do our 15,000 telecommuters (who work from home one or more days every week) work the same and often longer hours when they work from home, they also have higher engagement scores, lower absentee rates, lower turnover rates, and the same or higher annual performance ratings, when compared to our non-telecommuting population."

Rodgers also noted that simply asking if someone telecommutes would yield all kinds of "yes" results. "For us, that would include: full-time at home (5 days a week), to part-time at home (1-4 days every week), to occasional (one day a month or less), to rare occurrences (e.g. for business continuity situations)...and everything in between," Rodgers wrote.

She's not the only skeptic.

"I can't help but think that many of the survey respondents somehow misunderstood the question or the meaning of the term 'telecommute,'" commented David Rush, a senior workplace design strategist in the Ideation Group at Haworth. "Any employee who stays disconnected (not 'at work') for 7 hours in a work day becomes well known for it to coworkers and managers very quickly. I doubt if any business would tolerate that type of disengagement..."

Jim Ware, executive director at The Future of Work, adds another wrinkle to the discussion:  "... what strikes me about the whole thing is that everyone is talking about hours put in, not about results produced. Our research consistently shows that teleworkers are 18% to 20% more productive than office workers, so who cares how many hours they work?"

And my two cents?

I don't believe these telecommuters are the slackers they sound like. I also don't think they accurately represent the teleworking population. My suspicion is that they're only occasional teleworkers.

I think most of these less-than-a-full-day teleworkers are people who work hard a majority of the time. They come in to the office early and stay late. They eat lunch at their desks and miss dinners at home because they're traveling for work. They work more than 40 hours, I'm willing to bet, in a typical work week. Occasionally, maybe they decide to work from home -- in the "I'm working from home, wink, wink" way, not in the way that a genuine, full-time telecommuting employee works.

Maybe on this occasional work-from-home day, an employee might walk the kids to the bus stop, or squeeze in a dentist appointment that's been rescheduled twice already. They might catch up on laundry that piled up while traveling for work, or pick up the dry cleaning.

I like to believe these employees are accessible if a coworker or boss needs to reach them. They stay on top of email and voicemail messages as needed.

Are they slacking off? Yes. But I'm guessing that in most cases, it's about balancing the scales. The work-life scales.

Many employees have been working longer hours and juggling greater responsibilities since the economy started tanking a few years ago. People routinely read email before they've even had breakfast, and many adults fall asleep with an electronic device within arm's reach.

According to the iPass Mobile Workforce Report, which polled 3,100 mobile employees, many people are working around the clock these days thanks to nearly ubiquitous connectivity. Specifically, employees with mobile devices said they work before their commute to the office (cited by 38% of respondents), during their commute to work (25%), during their lunch hour (37%), during the commute home (22%), after dinner, before bed (26%), and in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep (8%) -- and that's on a daily basis.

According to the same iPass Mobile Workforce Report, 69% of people on vacation checked into work at least daily, 93% checked in at least weekly, and 41% checked in multiple times per day.

Technology -- and work -- have invaded our personal time. Sometimes we need to recoup some of that. I think that's the reasoning of people who view the occasional work-from-home day as an opportunity to put in fewer hours. I hope I'm not just being naïve.

Follow Ann Bednarz on Twitter: @annbednarz

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