Stephanie Giovanetti, the mother of a 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, lives in Boston, works for a non-profit in D.C., and doesn't feel like she has to choose between her job and her family.
"I feel privileged to have the job that I do and I can be the mom I want to be," Giovanetti said.
Giovanetti, 39, has worked remotely for the last 10 years — her daughter has always known a home-working mom. After the kids are in school the house is quiet, and with her instant message screen open she feels connected to her co-workers who are more than 400 miles away.
Giovanetti is part of a growing trend of workers performing their jobs remotely — in cafes or on dining room tables at home.
In the United States the proportion of workers mainly working from home has almost doubled in the last 20 years. In 2010, according to the Census Bureau, 4.3 percent of the workforce worked mainly from home. The trend has been especially attractive for working moms and has enabled women to further enter the workforce while being able to actively raise their children. But combining work and home isn't new. In fact, remote work is just a further evolution in how and where work is done that over time has changed with technology and had major impacts on family dynamics.
While the trend of allowing workers flextime and flexplace is well known, there has been little real research into how it affects productivity and job satisfaction.
But recently a group of Stanford economists completed an experiment for China's largest travel agency, Ctrip, to see if call-center employees could be as productive at home. Employers at Ctrip wondered if remote employees might be the answer to high-rent Shanghai office space.
The experiment is the first of its kind, according to the economists, who published a paper titled "Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Corporate Experiment."
The results for those who worked at home were outstanding, showing their productivity increased by 12 percent. About two-thirds of that productivity gain came from working more, as they took fewer sick days and missed less work due to commuting. Another third of the gain came from a quieter working environment, according to the authors.
Not only were they more productive, home workers were happier, and the number of workers who left the company during this time fell by 50 percent compared to those who selected to stay in the office.
At the end of the experiment, Ctrip decided to offer the option to work from home to the entire firm.
Why more people do not work from home is still a question.
The fact that a company sought research about remote work might reflect industry's uncertainty on expanding the practice.
Jenny Ying, an author of the study and a Stanford economist, noted that not all jobs lend themselves to remote work.
"You can't ask a waitress to work from home," Ying said.
The best jobs for remote work are either monotonous or very creative tasks — accountants or painters.
Steve Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University, said employers might worry about monitoring the work done by employees out of the office. To make working away from your boss successful, Horwitz thinks it is important to have a concrete, visible and easily measured product. University professors do much of their work, not including teaching, outside of the office — but their tenure depends on the easily measured output of research papers.
Being in an office also provides workers with a unique social atmosphere.
"You miss out on the serendipity of interaction," Horwitz said.
The value of trading ideas around the watercooler might be lost through instant messaging.
And employees might have their own reservations. At the end of the Ctrip experiment, a third of those picked to work at home decided to return to the office. Ying said most of those who returned to the office were young, and she thought work was a valuable social time for them.
Ying's experiment lasted only nine months, so the long-term impact of working at home remains unstudied.
"Maybe the first months (of working at home) can be refreshing," Ying said. "Whether this continues is still a question."
Work and the home
History shows that changing trends in the way people work can greatly affect family life.
In fact, the traditional family and work dynamic, including a male breadwinner leaving for the office while his wife does domestic chores at home, is actually quite modern according to experts, and a product of an industrial economy. In the more distant past, mixing home and work was the norm, and wives and husbands shared responsibility for bringing in the bread.
Horwitz noted that for most of human history, "most of what people did happened in the home." For example, farmers, bakers or traders would often work and live on the same property in which they did business.
While there was tremendous male dominance, there was no sense that men were the breadwinners, said Stephanie Coontz, a history and family studies professor at Evergreen State College. And in pre-industrial times, men and women were involved equally in raising the children.
In colonial America, Coontz noted, shopowners who lost a wife would sometimes be denied a new license for their businesses until they were re-married. Women were a major part of the family business. Bakers often married bakers.
But the industrial revolution and creation of a modern economy changed all that.
Horwitz describes a narrative in which the growth of the American economy led to what many see as the traditional family work-home relationship. With the advent of the factory system the scale of production increased, meaning people wanted to make more stuff, and this required more workers under one roof performing a trade. The increased division of labor led to, for the first time, many leaving home in the morning to "go to work." Horwitz notes a correlation between urbanization and industrialization, as home life moved farther apart from where money was earned.
As wages paid by employers rose during the 18th and early 19th centuries, working from home made less sense. And people became rich enough that their children no longer had to work for the family — as a result children shifted from economic assets to costs. Family size began to shrink.
Also, as people began separating work and home, there began a greater focus on the division of labor between a husband and wife.
"(In the 19th century) there became a distinction between men's work, women's work … men's time, women's time," Coontz said.
Only beginning in the 1920's could a majority of families afford not to have the wife and kids at work, Coontz said.
So will some American workers be making a full historical circle in returning to the home to work remotely? Horwitz doesn't see it that way.
"We aren't going back to the ways things once were," Horwitz said. A couple might work from the home more easily today but they likely also have different jobs. And in the end they are still working for someone else.
Effect on families
"It is great for families," Horwitz said, talking about workers able to leave the office.
For one, he explained, it decreases the cost of children, as more people are able to work from home and fulfill parental obligations. The number of households in the U.S. with both parents working has increased from 25 percent in 1968 to 48 percent in 2008, according to the 2010 of the Council of Economic Advisors.
Horwitz even thinks that, on the margin, working remotely will lead to parents having more children. He also thinks it could lead to more employment by women as more mothers will not have to chose between work and family.
Ying has also done research on employees of the Salt Lake City-based airline JetBlue. JetBlue has always employed its call-center workers remotely — a perfect job for many mothers in the city.
From visiting workers, Ying got the impression that women with good financial standing might choose to work remotely because they find work interesting but do not want it to interfere with family.
At JetBlue, remote employees with tenure can choose non-conventional hours to work. One worker explained to Ying that if they had to work a straight eight-hour shift they would not be working at all.
Coontz sees pros and cons to the trend. She agrees that dissolving the boundaries between work and home will make life easier for women and be good for children, but at the same makes it easier for work to "colonize the home."
Coontz recommends that workers establish mental and emotional boundaries between home life and work. Workers should make it clear to employers, and to themselves, that when it is time to deal with a child or partner that the phone is off and the laptop closed.
Giovanetti, the mom who does work remotely from home, has had trouble sometimes separating the two. On a vacation in Maine she was getting bad Internt service, so she snuck away from her family to check emails at a cyber café.
"It has been my New Year's resolution to not look at email as much," Giovanetti said.
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