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Telecommuting Still a Rare Perk

PRINCETON, NJ -- Despite much recent hype about companies offering four-day workweeks and greater flexibility for telecommuting, a new Gallup Poll suggests these are perks for the few, not the masses. Just 12% of U.S. workers say their companies have encouraged employees to work from home one or more workdays per week; 16% say they've been encouraged to work a four-day workweek.

These rates may be higher than in years past, but they still leave out the vast majority of workers -- either because of the nature of the work they do, or possibly because employers are resistant to the arrangements.

Telecommuting Not Catching On

Were 12% of American workers to start routinely telecommuting in place of driving to work one or more days a week, that could, in fact, have a meaningful impact on consumer finances and energy consumption in the country. (The same poll puts the average round-trip commute for workers at 47 minutes.)

However, staggering gas pump prices aside, the poll finds no increase since 2006 in the percentage of U.S. workers saying they have ever telecommuted from home. That figure is 30% today versus 32% two years ago. The big shift in this trend occurred over the previous decade.

Employees in households earning $75,000 or more a year are twice as likely as those in households earning $30,000 to $74,999 to have ever telecommuted, 44% vs. 21%. (There are too few employees in lower-income households to evaluate.) Even then, most telecommuters say they use the convenience as a way to put in extra hours on nights or on weekends, not as a substitute for driving into the office.

Among those who have ever worked at home using their computers to communicate with the office, the average number of days they report having telecommuted is now just 5.1, compared with 6.3 in 2006. Given the small sample sizes for each year, it is unclear whether this represents a real decline in telecommuting, but certainly it hasn't increased.

Bottom Line

The combination of technological advances in electronic communication and rising commuting costs ought to make telecommuting and four-day workweeks attractive options for many workers. Some argue these arrangements can also benefit employers in the form of lower overhead and increased worker productivity.

Of course, there is a ceiling on how many workers' jobs are suitable for either practice. A USA Today/Gallup poll in May found only 21% of those who drive to work (representing about 90% of all workers) saying that working from home is an option for them. That may largely reflect the constraints of the type of work they do.

Still, half of workers who said in the May USA Today/Gallup survey that working from home was an option for them said they have never done it -- so there is clearly room for more growth. Given this -- and the fact that 12% report that their employers are encouraging telecommuting to soften the gas pinch -- it's surprising to see no increase in the national rate at a time when gas prices are such a concern.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 7-10, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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