Remote work opportunities are sought by many people who hope to improve work-life balance while also maintaining, or even improving, their productivity.

As more companies and workers have enjoyed these benefits from telecommuting, you would think questions about the practice would disappear. But you’d be wrong.

Fortunately, new studies are adding hard data to the anecdotal evidence about the pros and cons of working remotely. One of the latest is “Telecommuting and Earnings Trajectories Among American Women and Men 1989–2008,” published in Social Forces in 2016.

Telecommuting: when does it happen, and does it impact earnings?

Study authors Jennifer Glass, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Mary Noonan, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, set out first to establish how many telecommuting hours are spent to replace on-site working hours, as opposed to serving as overtime. Then they sought to explore the earnings gains—or penalties—that result from remote work, as well as any differences in those earnings between women and men.

Their research, which was supported by grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, used data collected by the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), a long-running national survey of Americans who have standard, 40-hour work weeks.

Glass and Noonan note in their report that remote work’s effects on employee productivity and compensation are still “much contested and little understood.”

“On one side, scholars predict that employees using flexible work arrangements will pay a steep price in foregone earnings and promotions as employers differentiate between traditional workers and those using flexible work options,” they say in the “author manuscript” edition of the study.

“Other scholars, however, suggest that employees who use flexible work practices are in fact ‘favored’ workers in high performance workplaces where autonomy and schedule control increase worker productivity and promote wage growth.”

They write that telecommuting holds promise as a strategy that can simultaneously increase an employee’s control and work-life balance while reducing travel time, costs, and environmental pollution. Remote work also can decrease employer costs through improved productivity and morale, as well as fewer absences related to illness, all with minimal expense.

“At the same time, managers may devalue the labor of those working off-site because of the indirect costs or burden of supervising employees using flexible schedules,” the study says. “Moreover, this process may not be gender neutral—women may be more heavily penalized for telecommuting than men since such practices signal women’s reproductive status and competing commitments to family.”

Telecommuting equates to more time spent working, not less

Some employer resistance to telecommuting also results from a belief that remote workers won’t be available when they’re needed. However, the study shows that, rather than replacing on-site work hours with time spent at home, many telecommuters are merely extending their 40-hour workweeks by spending time on job tasks after hours and on weekends.

Glass and Noonan found that 43 percent of the “job spells” in their analytic sample included at least one hour per week worked at home. However, only 26 percent of job spells included telecommuting of five hours or more per week. And more than two-thirds of the telecommuting hours in the sample were worked as overtime hours, as opposed to replacement of on-site hours in a standard, 40-hour week.

Is there an earnings upside?

When it comes to wages, the study points out that many researchers predict negative consequences of telecommuting on earnings. Some research has shown that remote workers face “flexibility bias” in the evaluation of their competence and commitment.

“Indeed, many qualitative accounts exist of workers afraid to use employer’s flexibility policies because they believe their work careers, but not their productivity, would suffer as a result,” the study says.

“To the extent that employers believe women telecommute to free up time and energy for family care, telecommuting should depress their wages more than men. The stigma placed on workers, disproportionately women, who openly display their family care responsibilities by being visibly pregnant, bringing a child to work, or leaving early for a school event, could contribute to lower earnings directly through evaluation bias and indirectly through assignment to less important work tasks.”

However, when the researchers analyzed the NLSY data, they found that “the impact of telecommuting hours on earnings is similar to the impact of hours worked on-site during the first 40 hours of the work week (about an $8–$9 increase for every additional hour worked).”

These results may be due, in part, to the fact that telecommuting workers in the sample were more likely to be managers and other professionals with higher salaries and more education. But the bottom line is that telecommuting does not appear to result in an earnings penalty for either women or men.

“In fact, telecommuting hours produce slightly larger earnings effects in some models than hours worked on-site, bolstering the empirical work showing greater productivity and higher wages among remotely working employees,” the report says. “Thus, the location of work in the first 40 hours per week seems mostly irrelevant—no difference could be detected that suggests hours worked on-site have a stronger earnings impact than hours worked from home, and no gender difference in the impact of telecommuting that disadvantaged women or mothers’ earnings appeared.”

However, the study found that overtime telecommuting had minimal impact on earnings growth. “For every additional hour worked at home after the first 40 hours of work performed that week, weekly earnings increase about $3. Overtime work performed on-site leads to significantly greater earnings growth (about $6.50 per hour) than overtime work performed at home.”

The importance of boundaries

Glass and Noonan write that this begs the question of why workers provide overtime work from home to employers.

One possible reason could be related to commute times. This is not specifically mentioned in the study, but it may be that people who telecommute for, say, one day each week don’t feel like they’re working extra hours because they’re saving the time they usually spend sitting in a car or on a bus on the way to and from work. The key is to make sure remote work doesn’t force people to trade the work-related “evil” of a stressful commute for another evil, namely overwork.

Employees also may opt to work overtime hours from home to stay competitive with their colleagues, Noonan says in an article about the study.

“Employers are demanding more of their workers. It’s a rat race in some respects,” Noonan says. “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. It’s hard when there’s anxiety about performing.”

As to why overtime hours worked from home don’t have more of an impact on earnings, the authors suggest that it could come down to visibility. Extra hours spent in the office serve “as an indicator of work devotion even when divorced from actual total hours worked and/or measured productivity. These results support the suggestion that managerial biases reward employees for just ‘being there’ beyond the standard 40-hour workweek, and that face time at the work site is necessary for overtime to count as commitment or loyalty.”

The report says this could be bad news for parents and others who want to cut back on OT hours on-site without hurting their productivity by completing some tasks at home.

“Overall, our results confirm the contention of scholars that information technology has played a profound role in escalating the productivity demands placed upon salaried workers, and subjected them to increasing expectations of 24/7 connectivity,” the study concludes. “This does not bode well for either gender equality, given mothers’ greater burden of caregiving at present, or work-life balance, given parents’ needs to shelter time with family and community without hurting themselves financially.

“The twin findings here that most telecommuting hours are overtime hours after at least 40 hours have already been spent at the office, and that these hours are least likely to result in earnings growth over time, show in stark terms how new workplace technologies have been used to create new managerial pressures to extract additional productivity from workers without raising the wage bill. Rather than utilizing the promise of telecommuting to create more flexible work schedules and accommodate family care among workers, the actual practice of telecommuting within work organizations has mostly just increased total work hours among salaried workers and ratcheted up competition among workers for raises and job security.”

What are your reactions to this study? Do most of your telecommuting hours replace on-site hours in your standard workweek, or are they overtime hours used to get more work done? Why do you believe people are willing to work remote overtime hours when they’re not receiving an earnings benefit? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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