If you’re reading this on the way to work, it’s more likely that you’re looking at your phone while walking down the hall of your home than that you’re sitting with fellow commuters on a bus or train.
Recently released government statistics show that what flex work advocates have long expected has officially come to pass: telecommuting has become more common than taking public transit to work.
According to an article from Governing, estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau published in September show that about 8 million Americans work primarily from home.
“That makes telework now second behind only driving as the most common means of getting to work, exceeding public transportation for the first time,” the article says. “Last year, an estimated 5.2 percent of workers in the American Community Survey reported that they usually telecommute, a figure that’s climbed in recent surveys. Meanwhile, the share of employees taking public transportation declined slightly to 5 percent and has remained mostly flat over the longer term.”
While those statistics are interesting, the number of telecommuters is probably even higher than the Census report indicates. That’s because the bureau’s survey asks people how they “usually” go to work, meaning someone who works from home one or two days each week wouldn’t be included in the numbers.
“A 2016 Gallup survey found that 43 percent of employees spent at least some time working remotely,” the Governing article says.
Such previous surveys mean the Census Bureau data will not surprise many proponents of work flexibility. Still, it is a milestone of sorts in the shift from office-based labor to a remote workforce.
It also shows that more companies are embracing telecommuting, thanks to advances in technology that make communication easier and the growth of jobs outside of traditional manufacturing industries.
“Those working from home at the highest rate — 11.7 percent — in the Census survey were classified as professional, scientific, management, administrative, and waste management services workers,” the Governing article says. “Other industries where telework is about as common include finance, insurance, real estate, agriculture, and the information sector.”
It’s likely no coincidence that this growth in remote work comes even as commute times are increasing for Americans who still have to travel to an office every day.
“The average American’s one-way commute time ticked up slightly from 26.6 minutes in 2016 to 26.9 minutes last year,” notes an article from Rapid Shift. “That might seem small, but it adds up to an extra 2.5 hours spent in traffic over a year’s time.”
Even with the rise of remote work and the lengthening of frustrating commutes, the vast majority of people still drive to work every day. Cars are more accessible for low-income people now. Other contributing factors are relatively low gas prices and the proliferation of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
“The lion’s share of U.S. workers — 85.3 percent — drove to work in 2017, with 76.4 percent driving alone and 8.9 percent carpooling,” the Rapid Shift article says. “Most of the increase in drivers is from people driving alone, an increase of just under 2 million people, compared with only 27,000 more carpoolers than the previous year.”
The emphasis on driving to work or telecommuting instead of taking public transportation could have a long-lasting impact on the nation’s transit systems. According to a CBS News article, U.S. bus systems have seen an especially sharp drop in ridership.
Public transit organizations are trying to adjust to this new reality, and it’s likely that they will need to continue to do so.
“In the current tight job market, employees such as millennials are increasingly seeking more flexible working conditions including the ability to work from home,” the CBS News article says. “A 2017 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 62 percent of organizations allowed telecommuting, an increase from 59 percent five years ago.”
As more people and companies grow to understand the productivity, environmental, and work-life balance benefits of telecommuting, those numbers will only increase. While 2017 represented a tipping point, the trend toward more flexibility is really just getting started.
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