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Build Your Career Work-Life Balance

Does Telecommuting Really Improve Work-Life Balance?

Does Telecommuting Really Improve Work-Life Balance?
Credit: Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

Despite what many people think, telecommuting doesn't always help employees balance out their home and work lives, new research finds.

The study from sociologists at the University of Iowa and the University of Texas at Austin discovered that employees who telecommute end up working longer hours than their peers who never work from home.

The research revealed that employees who workd at least part of the time away from the office put in an average of 3 hours more per week than those who spent all their working time in the office. And those extra hours didn't translate into additional pay, according to the study.

Mary Noonan, one of the study's authors and an associate professor at the University of Iowa, said it's a little simplistic to conclude that working from home always improves work-life balance. [See Related Story: 8 Work-from-Home Myths Debunked]

"It cuts down on commuting time, and it appears to add more flexibility to the workday," Noonan said in a statement. "But it can extend the day, and it doesn't get you much more in terms of wage growth."

The researchers said that salaried employees who telecommute simply extend their workweeks, which in turn carves into their home and family time.

"It doesn't seem like telecommuting is used by people to replace work hours," Noonan said. "When people telecommute, they use it mostly to do more work."

The study's authors surmised that telecommuters end up working longer hours because these employees feel more pressure to show how productive they are. Telecommuters feel this pressure because their bosses don't see them working each day, the researchers said.

Noonan added that knowing what happened during the Great Recession could also play a role in the long hours put in by those who work from home.

"There's a lot more stress with some people that if they don't do more, they could lose their jobs, and if they don't do their job, stay connected, the next person will," Noonan said. "It's hard when there's anxiety about performing."

The research is based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which surveyed workers at regular intervals between 1989 and 2008. Among the midlife employees surveyed, more than 40 percent of salaried workers had worked from home at some point, the survey found.

The study's authors looked specifically at people who had worked for the same employer over the span of the survey and had telecommuted at least some of the time.

The research found that even though telecommuters put in longer hours, their earnings growth differed little from that of employees who worked in the office all week.

The study did find that women employees who worked a 40-hour workweek from home were paid the same as men who telecommuted. 

"Employers are becoming perhaps more and more cognizant that men and women are dividing housework more evenly," Noonan said. "Perhaps the employers look at men and women more similarly today than maybe 30, 40 years ago."

Since employers know the advantage of offering flexible work options, like working from home, as perks to attract employees, it's the companies' responsibility to either discourage working the extra hours, or at least pay for it, Noonan said. On the other hand, employees need to keep their bosses apprised of how many hours they work each week, she said.

Workers should remember to tell their employers "what they accomplish when they work at home or work overtime," Noonan said.

The study, which was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, was co-authored by Jennifer Glass, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.