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Summer 2007 Vol. 51, Number 2

Flexible work: Adjusting the when and where of your job
by
Elka Maria Torpey


 

Work at home

Working at home—sometimes called telecommuting, teleworking, and flexiplacing—offers many advantages to those who seek flexibility.

BLS data show that many people who worked at home reported doing so because of the nature of their job or because that was where they conducted a business. Smaller percentages worked at home to finish or catch up on work, or to coordinate their work schedule with personal or family needs.

The work that people do at home is either for someone else—working at home either some or all of the time—or for themselves. These types of arrangements are often best suited to highly motivated workers who enjoy being on their own.

Working at home for an employer

BLS data show that about 13.7 million people worked at home for an employer at least once a week in May 2004. Of these, however, only about 1 in 4 had a formal arrangement to be paid for at-home work. The rest regularly took work home with them but without a formal arrangement to be paid for doing so. While both can allow for some flexibility, this section focuses on those who reported being paid for home work.

Working at home doesn’t have to mean staying away from the office completely. Many people paid to work at home spent 15 or fewer hours per week doing so, spending the rest of their time at their employer’s place of business or elsewhere. (See chart 1.) Less than 1 percent of all wage and salary workers—or about 575,000 people—worked entirely at home.

This type of arrangement creates flexibility, but, says Jack Heacock, senior vice president of the Telework Coalition in Washington, D.C., working at home is still work. "You still have to do all the tasks you used to do, but you do them from a distance. The duties and requirements of the job are the same." Not only are job qualifications the same, but at-home workers often need additional qualities—such as the ability to work reliably without supervision.

Pros and cons. Being able to spend more time at home can be advantageous for some workers. For many, a home office or the living room coffee table is more comfortable than an employer’s office environment. Workers can also save time or money—or both—by not having to commute and not having to dress formally for an office setting. And jobs that let you work at home for an employer often come with the standard benefits, such as paid vacation and health insurance.

Not all workers are cut out to spend their days at home, though. Some people report feeling isolated from their peers and missing office interactions. Workers usually have an easier time with this arrangement if they are self-disciplined and enjoy working alone for long periods of time.

In addition, some work-at-home arrangements don’t always provide consistent pay. For example, you might be paid only for time you spend on the phone or for the work that’s available.

How to get it. People in every major occupational group worked at home, including about 9 percent of workers in computer and mathematical occupations, BLS data show. (See table 3.)

When deciding whether your job is the type that could be done at home, consider the tasks you do. And trust your instincts. "Use your intuition as to the specific kinds of jobs you can do at home," says Heacock.

Jobs that require a mix of personal interaction and independent work might be good candidates for some at-home work. A school social worker, for example, might go into the workplace to meet with students, administrators, and others. The rest of his or her time might be spent at home on reports and paperwork.

Technology has led to an increase in the number of jobs that can be done at home. As a result, many of these arrangements require that workers have a familiarity with and competency in the use of computers, the Internet, or other communications technologies.

This technology allows some people to work at home all or most of the time. Jobs involving primarily solo work or extensive time on the phone or computer might be possible candidates for all-the-time work at home. Occupations that are conducive to working at home all the time include customer service representatives, data entry keyers, and medical transcriptionists. But, says Heacock, not all jobs are eligible for this kind of arrangement, despite an increase in companies that are interested in telework.

[Table 3]

 

 

[Chart2]

 

If you are looking for a job in which you can work exclusively at home, you will likely encounter lots of advertisements for opportunities, many of which sound too good to be true. These ads promise that you’ll earn a substantial income working part time, for example, or require that you pay a small fee for materials. In reality, the "substantial income" might refer to earning a commission based on achieving an impossible quota, and the "small fee" might be thousands of dollars for equipment that does not include instruction in its use. Avoid being duped. Carefully research a company before agreeing to perform any work for it.

Work at home for yourself

Many people say that self-employment provides the ultimate flexibility, because when you’re your own boss, you set your own schedule. And about half of the self-employed—or around 7 million people—worked at home each week in May 2004, according to BLS.

Self-employed workers operate all types of businesses, including stores and restaurants. Two-thirds of the self-employed who worked at home had home-based businesses.

Pros and cons. Many people who are self-employed at home say that they are happy to work for themselves. Self-employed workers’ degree of independence is, in ways, unparalleled. And the feeling of accomplishment that comes with success is hard to beat.

But self-employment usually involves considerable work, especially in starting up, without a guaranteed return. And, depending on the field or business, self-employed workers may not be able to do their jobs at home. In addition, these workers don’t enjoy many of the standard benefits that other workers receive, such as paid sick leave. A day not worked is usually a day not paid. Moreover, they might have to invest in equipment or other necessities and can experience sporadic earnings.

Self-employment might be best for you if you are comfortable with financial risk and with promoting yourself and your services. Many people who hope to work for themselves reduce the risk by starting a business while they still have a full-time job. They wait to quit their full-time job until after they are more confident they can be successful on their own.

How to get it. To work for yourself at home, look into businesses and occupations that involve at-home tasks.

For example, almost a million workers with home-based businesses were in management occupations. (See chart 2.) Workers in these occupations might include chief executives or marketing and public relations consultants. Personal care and service—another occupational group with many home-based businesses—includes occupations such as childcare worker and hairdresser, hairstylist, and cosmetologist.

To start a business, think about the types of products or services you’d like to offer, and look into the local laws and regulations that affect self-employment. Lynn Lee, of Austin, Texas, decided to transfer her expertise as a teacher to providing in-home childcare. She consulted local resources to find out the requirements for starting her own business.

Lee’s glad she made the change. "It was really pretty easy to get started," she says. "With my own in-home childcare business, I can be at home—which I love—and still work with kids."

 

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007