About 13.4 million people, or about 9.5 percent of workers, were working home at least some of the time in 2010. That’s up from about 9.2 million workers in 1997.
Even if you are thousands of miles away from the office and wearing your pajamas, your boss could still be watching you just as closely as if you were sitting in the next cubicle over.
Some companies are monitoring employees’ every keystroke no matter where they are working, and that’s leading to more than just sniffing out who is stealing company secrets. It’s also giving some employers a pretty good idea of whether their remote workers are keeping as busy as the ones who are sitting in the cubicle farm.
In some cases, companies are finding that remote workers can be just as productive, if not more so – especially once they find out that the boss is keeping tabs on them.
“That’s a very typical consequence,” said Dan Enthoven, vice president of marketing for Enkata, which makes technology that monitors insurance claims processors and call center workers.
The growing ability to watch workers’ every move comes as some companies appear to be growing more accepting of telecommuting, both as a way to keep employees happy and as a way to keep office costs down. About 13.4 million people, or about 9.5 percent of workers, were working from home at least some of the time in 2010. That’s up from about 9.2 million workers in 1997, according to the Census Bureau.
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Still, others, such as tech giant Yahoo, are clamping down on it.
When Yahoo banned telecommuting earlier this year, the company said it was because it wanted employees to be in the same physical space, so they could collaborate better. But others worry that, if left to their own devices, home-based workers will watch TV, do laundry, play Angry Birds or otherwise slack off.
Experts say that’s not necessarily true, but that telecommuting only works if employers hold workers accountable for getting their work done.
“You have to manage workers, whether they’re working from home or not,” said Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on telecommuting.
Enkata, the employee monitoring company, exclusively provided NBC News with an analysis of 125 home- and office-based workers who do medical claims processing at a major insurance provider. The employees in the analysis were paid an hourly rate and also were given bonuses for reaching certain performance targets.
In the first few months they were monitored, the Enkata researchers found that the home-based workers did have more idle time - which they defined as going more than five minutes without using the computer in any way – than their office-based colleagues.
Then, the employer told the workers that they were being monitored. The home-based workers’ idle time fell immediately and dramatically, while the office-based workers idle time stayed relatively steady.
In the several months that followed, the home-based workers had about the same, if not a little less, idle time than their office-based peers. The number of claims processed also went up slightly across the board.
“All of a sudden, the idle time got squeezed out,” Enthoven said.
That’s pretty typical of what has happened at other companies Enkata has monitored, he said.
Lynn Wu, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies information worker productivity, said her research has shown that workers will become somewhat more productive when you monitor their activities more closely.
But, she said, they are most productive when employers combine employee monitoring with incentive pay for performance.
On the other hand, just providing incentive pay without any monitoring can actually lead to less productivity because people just try to game the system, she said.
Experts say it would be a mistake to compare call center or claims processing workers’ habits with telecommuters who do more highly skilled jobs, such as engineers or software designers.
For one thing, Wu said her past research has shown that people who take customer calls or process claims don’t generally like their jobs, so they may be less motivated to perform well. She thinks highly skilled workers, who may be more passionate about their jobs, should have the option to work where they think they are most productive, whether that’s at home or at work.
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Glass, the University of Texas professor, said other research has shown that people who are given the flexibility to telecommute – even when doing lower skilled work like call center jobs - tend to be more productive.
“A lot of times you feel like you have to overcompensate,” she said. “You have to be grateful.”
Glass also noted that most people who telecommute are only doing so part-time. In many cases, her research has shown, the at-home work is actually overtime work – extra hours that people are putting in above and beyond their 40-hour week.
Glass thinks that employers don’t use telecommuting enough, but she still wouldn’t recommend that people work remotely all the time. That’s because she said workers need to have some face time with their bosses and colleagues in order to build relationships and network.
Enthoven, of Enkata, said their analysis of the insurance company found that the people who worked in the office used e-mail and instant messaging at twice the rate of those who were working at home. They suspect it was because the office workers had made better friends with one another.
Wu said those friendships could be much more important than you think. Some of her other research has shown that people who were more social at work were less likely to get laid off. That’s why she also recommends that people who telecommute also come into the office sometimes.
“If you’re always working at home, you’re not making the contacts you need,” she said.
Allison Linn is a reporter at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn or send her an e-mail.
First published June 19 2013, 2:07 AM