Web work: Only for the elite?

Not everyone can work via the web, that’s obvious. If you’re a cardiologist or corrections officer, or if your job requires sophisticated machinery, then simply booting up your laptop in the local coffee shop isn’t going to be an option. But are there other more subtle limitations to who can work at a distance?

A recent study from The Telework Research Network sheds some light on this question. The study focuses specifically on employees who work from home rather than the self-employed and sifts through data from government sources like the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as industry information from the likes of WorldatWork, to determine who is working remotely and who isn’t.

Besides finding a huge pool of 30.4 million potential telecommuters who could work flexibly and desire to do so but are not offered the chance, the study also revealed that a large number of web workers have a very specific profile. They’re older, well paid, educated professionals. The study found:

  • The typical telecommuter is a 49-year-old, college-educated, salaried, non-union employee in a management or professional role, earning $58,000 a year at a company with more than 100 employees.
  • Over 75 percent of employees who work from home earn over $65,000 per year, putting them in the upper 80 percentile relative to all employees.
  • More than 70 percent of the WAH [work at home] population holds management, professional, sales, and office jobs (compared with 61 percent of the total workforce).

Why is web work so skewed towards this particular demographic? The authors suggest thee possibilities. First, older workers may require more flexibility due to greater family obligations. Having worked longer, they may also have had more opportunity to build the trust necessary to convince their employer to permit flexible arrangements. Finally, it may be that they are at a comfortable enough stage in theirs career that they no longer fear remote work having a negative effect on their advancement.

The first possibility is down to individuals’ particular situations and, whether it turns out to be true or not that older workers benefit most from web work, the principle of allowing employees to work remotely based on need makes sense. But the other two explanations suggest that many managers only hand out web work privileges to senior people with the clout to demand flexibility and ignore any potential stigma attached to telecommuting.

Is this a sensible way to ensure only those who can handle the responsibility of web work receive it, or an unfortunate prejudice that keeps junior staff from enjoying the productivity and loyalty gains web work can provide?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Larry Johnson