In 2013, the then chief executive of tech firm Yahoo!, Marissa Maya, famously banned staff from working at home.
People are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together”, she said at the time. “Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”
Employees seem to like the social interaction at work and some fear their careers will suffer if they stay away from the office.
Studies have also drawn attention to the isolation some teleworkers experience, especially if they work from home a lot.
But there are signs telecommuting is finally gaining more traction in Australia.
A study by Swinburne University of Technology academics John Hopkins and Judith McKay has shed light on how remote working habits are evolving.
They surveyed city workers from 10 big Melbourne employers about their commuting habits, flexible working arrangements and attitudes toward remote working.
Nearly two-thirds were taking advantage of flexible hours – they worked remotely an average of 1.1 days a week, mostly at home. Just over a third was not permitted to work remotely.
But only one in 50 of those surveyed said none of their work could be performed from an alternative location.
The majority of workers said at least half of their work could be done away from the office and for many that share was 80 per cent or more.
Most employees would like to spend at least a portion of their week working remotely but they don’t necessarily want to be away from the office all the time.
The most popular overall work arrangement among those surveyed was a 50/50 split between office-based activities and remote work.
The most popular days for telecommuting were Wednesdays and Thursdays and many respondents said remote working contributed to a better work-life balance.
The desire to work remotely grew stronger once workers had experienced it for themsleves suggesting the reality of telecommuting is “even more appealing than the concept.”
Only 5.5 per cent of survey respondents were opposed to working away from the office.
Technological advances, especially in the past decade, mean fewer work tasks are location-dependent. The equipment required to do many knowledge-based service jobs is now pervasive and easy to transport between office and home.
Smartphones have been an especially important catalyst for more flexible work behaviour, especially the capacity to send and receive messages anywhere, anytime.
“That for me was a pinnacle moment because it really escalated the ability to do things outside the office,” Dr Hopkins told me. “Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I can see both camps. It may have created more work and increased stress for many people. But it has also allowed greater flexibility.”
Younger workers who have grown up communicating, managing relationships, and collaborating online were the most enthusiastic about remote work, the survey showed.
As the share of tech-savvy millennials in the workforce grows, management attitudes are bound to change giving rise to more widespread flexible work arrangements.
In time, employers that don’t offer the flexibility of remote work might find it more difficult to recruit and retain high quality staff.
A recent survey of US workers found 85 per cent in that age cohort would prefer to telecommute all the time.
But there’s another reason remote working is likely to become more common: congestion.
A bigger take up of flexible working arrangements would allow more commuters to travel outside peak times, or to stay off the transport network altogether.
Given the voter frustration caused by traffic gridlock and overcrowded public transport, it is surprising our political leaders don’t talk more about flexible work arrangements.
Hopkins and McKay estimate that if the 64 per cent of employees their research found now work remotely 1.1 days a week increased that to five days a fortnight, it could cut the number of daily commuters in Melbourne by 131,000. If the remaining 36 per cent of workers were also able to work remotely half the time, daily commuter numbers would fall by another 103,000. That total reduction equates to 41 per cent of daily commuters in Melbourne (572,000).
A fraction of that decrease would ease pressure on city transport systems considerably.
If “congestion busting” is a top political priority then governments should do much more to encourage and support remote working.
It’s one way to improve the capacity of urban transport networks which doesn’t involve more concrete or tarmac.
It’s time for more telecommuting.
Matt Wade is a senior economics writer at The Sydney Morning Herald.