More Home Work Please

June 1 st 1998

The workplace is changing. Location, that is. One of the more startling figures to emerge amid the downsizings, layoffs, and work restructuring plans of the 1980s and 1990s is the number of people who are working from home.

Between 1991 and 1995, the percentage of employees in Canada performing any part of their regularly paid work at home jumped by one third—from six to nine per cent of employees—or more than one million workers. If the self-employed are included (53 per cent of those self-employed work at home) the figure jumps to 16 per cent of all workers, or 2.1 million people. In the U.S., the percentage almost doubled, from nine per cent to 17 per cent, from 1991 to 1997. It is estimated that by 2015, 40 per cent of Canadian workers will be home-based. (See "Working at Home" by Dominique Perusse in Perspectives on Labour and Income, Statistics Canada, Summer 1998.)

What has spurred this growth? A number of factors are contributing in various degrees, but certainly the impetus for the growing trend of "home work" has been the impact of technology, particularly advances in personal computer and communications technology.

Back to the future

Working at home is nothing new. It used to be that most trades were practised at home, with the store or workshop located next to the family quarters. The Industrial Revolution brought workers out of their homes and into the cities to work in factories. Ironically, it is technology again that is changing where we work by providing us with the means to do our jobs at home. It is relatively inexpensive today to set up a home office, complete a computer, modem, and fax to stay in touch with coworkers and supervisors. And the technology continues to get better while prices continue to drop.

But the emergence of home work as a growing trend is not strictly due to technology. Employers are realizing that providing flexible work alternatives for their workers improves their bottom line. IBM Canada, for instance, allows many of their sales, accounting, engineering, and managerial staff to do some of their work at home. The results? According to Sid Iverson of IBM, employees are up to 100 per cent more productive and they are far more content with their jobs.

Working at home has also been actively encouraged by governments, including the federal government which developed work-at-home policies based on a 1992 pilot project. Corporations are also experimenting with providing work-at-home options. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, 44 per cent of work-at-home employees had no choice about this arrangement. Only 20 per cent of employees choose to work at home for personal reasons.

There are advantages and disadvantages of working at home for both employers and employees. For employers, productivity is higher, work space costs are less, and workers are easier to recruit and retain. On the down side, employers need to deal with problems related to communication and coordination with employees, a lack of control over work, and problems with information security.

Employees, on the other hand, appreciate the increased scheduling flexibility, the ability to more easily reconcile work and family responsibilities, reduced expenses (transportation, clothing, food), and less time on the road. The down side is a decreased social circle, fewer career advancement opportunities, and an increased workload.

Is home work for you?

Although many people commonly believe that home work reduces stress for employees by making it easier for them to balance work and family life, Statistics Canada surveys on time use suggest that these workers are neither more nor less stressed than workers in general. So aside from the obvious benefit of no more traffic jams and, in most cases, the better pay (people who work from home earn in general between two and four dollars per hour more than their counterparts who work exclusively at their place of employment), is it really better to work at home? That depends. For some, working in a quiet, controlled environment away from the interruptions and distractions of the office allows them to be much more relaxed and productive.

But not all jobs are well-suited to a work-at-home environment. And not all employees, employers, or families for that matter are well-suited. For some, working from home may mean more pressure. The home, after all, is already a place of work—cleaning, laundry, cooking, mowing, vacuuming, child care. Adding a job from a demanding employer might be too much for some to take on.

The doors of home work being opened by information technology is a positive development. But even more positive is the growing realization by employers that providing flexible work alternatives such as home work not only makes good business sense, but makes the lives of some of their employees that much easier.


Dolf de Zoete is managing editor of The Guide.