Future Friday: Will the daily commute always be there?

Until technology can overcome its social short-comings telecommuting will not be the “future of work.”

I do a webinar on the subject of telecommuting, where I extol the virtues of telecommuting. At one time telecommuting seemed to be the major trend of the “future of work.” However, with recent moves by IBM, Yahoo, Honeywell and Aetna to make employees come back to the office, one might wonder if telecommuting will ever be the way we work in the future. The good news is that telecommuting has risen, but the bad news is not at the rate at which was projected to rise.

How much telecommuting occurs

According to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com:

  • 50% of the US workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least partial telework and approximately 20-25% of the workforce teleworks at some frequency
  • 80% to 90% of the US workforce says they would like to telework at least part-time. Two to three days a week seems to be the sweet spot that allows for a balance of concentrative work (at home) and collaborative work (at the office).
  • Fortune 1000 companies around the globe are entirely revamping their space around the fact that employees are already mobile. Studies repeatedly show they are not at their desk 50-60% of the time.
  • Regular work-at-home, among the non-self-employed population, has grown by 115% since 2005, nearly 10x faster than the rest of the workforce

These kinds of numbers beg the question why haven’t business adopted this method of working at a greater number and pace than what we are seeing. In fact, why are companies going against the trend of telecommuting?


Originally when telecommuting was being predicted to be such a big trend people were moving away from cities and out into the suburbs. With that trend occurring, telecommuting made perfect sense. Then the Millennials entered the workforce, and rather than being in the suburbs they want to be in the city. According to Greg Rosalsky, writing for the magazine Pacific Standard, “Young professionals flock to live in them for the perks of urban life… the metropolis of the computer age has become an even stronger magnet for the physical bodies of human beings.” As cities have diminished the blight and crime seen in the past (with some exceptions) the young and the rich have moved back to the cities.


Social science has also shown that, even in the age of technology, people still need social interaction. Meeting face to face with co-workers enhances communication and creativity, and in this era of knowledge workers, there is great value to that interaction. Companies are starting to recognize that despite the many ill-effects of commuting. Rosalsky says:

“There are many reasons to believe commuting is stupid. It wastes resources. It’s bad for the environment. It’s unproductive time that we’re not paid for. It costs us money. It’s stressful. It’s associated with higher rates of depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease, divorce, death, and a whole host of other maladies. We report we hate it more than anything else in our routines and that we’re happier when we get to more regularly work from home.”

But as employers continue to push for higher productivity they will push to keep telecommuting to a lower level. According to GlobalWorkforceAnalytics.com “Forty percent more U.S. employers offered flexible workplace options than they did five years ago. Still, only 7% make it available to most of their employees” and “Larger companies are most likely to offer telecommuting options to most of their employees.” Despite that those bigger companies are pulling back on telecommuting.
Telecommuting also tends to be limited to levels and classes of employees. Again according to GlobalWorkforceAnalytics.com A typical telecommuter is college-educated, 45 years old or older, and earns an annual salary of $58,000 while working for a company with more than 100 employees. 75% of employees who work from home earn over $65,000 per year, putting them in the upper 80th percentile of all employees, home or office-based.” They are also full-time and nonunion.

The Future?

What does portend for the future of telecommuting? There are several factors involved in this answer. If cities go into a demise again future generations may again decide that being in the suburbs may be the way to live. Technology also will have an impact. Currently, there is no good technology that allows for the same social interaction that staring someone in the face offers. Virtual reality might offer some hope, but even yet it is not sophisticated enough to be a widespread solution. Future technologies, such as we have seen imagined in Star Trek, i.e., the holodeck, may at some point be available. Driverless cars may make commuting more tolerable, as might high-speed commuter trains.
Until that confluence of technologies comes to pass, we are probably stuck with the majority of us have to make the daily trek to the office. If you work for one of the better companies perhaps you will have the opportunity to spend a couple of days working from home.
I hope you are that lucky.

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