Guess Who’s Working at Home? It’s Not Who You Think
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The Fiscal Times
February 25, 2014

Quick, what’s the first image that comes to mind when you think about the typical telecommuter?

For many, it’s probably  a millennial bent over a laptop in a coffee shop or a frazzled mom taking conference calls from her kitchen with a baby plopped on her lap. But a new study about the demographics of those who work from home paints a much different picture.

The vast majority of those who work remotely are actually men – and  there are no significant differences between remote workers with or without kids or among various age groups, according to the report, It’s 10 a.m.: Do You Know Where and How your Employees Are Working? by employer consulting firm the Flex+Strategy Group. The study found that 36 percent of men do most of their work remotely, versus just 23 percent of women.

Experts say another reason for the gap may be the myth that women take advantage of telecommuting policies in order to watch their children or accomplish non-work related tasks. Women may be so worried about being placed on the “mommy track” that they avoid asking for anything that could be perceived as special treatment.  “Perhaps women are more concerned about how they would be perceived if they worked remotely,” says Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of Flex+Strategy Group.

Such concerns might be well-placed. Managers are more likely to grant flextime to high-status men seeking flexible schedules in order to advance their careers, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Social Issues. Requests by women were unlikely to be granted, regardless of their job status or reason.

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Even so, women shouldn’t disqualify themselves from flexible arrangements without at least discussing it with their employers, says Pat Katepoo, founder of WorkOptions.com, which helps employees negotiate for a better work-life balance. “If you want it, you have to ask for it,” she adds. “Don’t let the stereotypes or the stigma stop you.”

Another reason for the disparity in how many men and women telecommute could be the type of work each gender does. The early adopters of telecommuting were in female-dominated job categories such as clerical work or medical transcription services. As technology has advanced, with more male-dominated industries such as information technology and software development, the numbers have shifted.

Home-based work (including self-employed workers) in computer engineering and science occupations increased by 69 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to an October Census report. About a quarter of home-based workers were in management, business, and financial occupations.

“Stereotypes from the early days of telecommuting are really just hanging on,” says Pamela La Gioia, president of Telework Recruiting. “That may be one reason companies are still reluctant to put telecommuting plans into place.”

Some companies may still believe that telecommuting is a perk that entices just a small cohort of workers, but a growing number of firms are starting to realize the broader appeal of such strategies. Sure, millennials like the freedom of choosing their own hours and work locations, but such arrangements can also benefit “sandwich generation” workers taking care of elderly parents as well as their children, and pre-retirees who want to scale back their work life without entirely abandoning their professional identity.

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Turns out, telecommuters often end up putting in more hours than their in-office counterparts. More than half of remote workers spend more than 40 hours per week on the job, according to a 2012 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Experts say it’s easy for people who work from home to blur the line between work and personal life. It’s also easy to get distracted, overlooked, or passed over for a promotion if both employees and managers don’t have a clear strategy for making work-from-home arrangements function properly.

In addition to helping attract and retain workers, telecommuting – on a full-time, part-time, or as-needed basis – has also become a key tool in companies’ business continuity plans. During the recent winter storms throughout the Midwest and the East Coast, many companies relied on telecommuters to keep operations on track.

In 2012, nearly two-thirds of employers allowed their workers to log at least some of their regularly scheduled hours at home, up from just 34 percent in 2005, according to a report by the Society of Human Resource Manager and the Families and Work Institute.

“Telecommuting is starting to come of age,” says Lisa Horn, a senior advisor with SHRM, based in Alexandria, Va. “It’s becoming more widely used and accepted as an overall business strategy for organizations.”

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Life + Money Editor Beth Braverman covers all things personal finance. Formerly a senior reporter and social media editor at MONEY magazine, she’s also held gigs as a newspaper reporter and trade magazine editor.