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December 31, 2012

How telecommuting threatens the work/life balance

(Continued)

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."

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