(April 15, 2013)

Technology has brought massive changes to our personal lives, but in the workplace it often seems like we're living at least a decade (or more) behind the times.

While devices like smart phones, tablets and laptops have made communication and technology more mobile than ever, many workers still spend their days in big, crowded office buildings, stuffed in tiny cubicles. And that's after sitting in traffic for upwards of an hour or more in a daily commute.

For now, though, the share of American workers who telecommute remains relatively small. Only about 4.3 percent of the American workforce called home their primary workplace in 2010, up from about 2.3 percent in the early'80s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

But excluding self-employed workers and those doing unpaid work for a family business, the number of telecommuters is actually about half that.

"Companies are embracing the latest portable tablets and laptops, social networking, video conferencing and many of the other technological advancements that make telecommuting increasingly viable," says John Challenger, CEO of the global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

"However, in many ways, companies are stuck in the old way of doing business, where people are expected to work from 9 to 5 and are judged more on the amount of ‘face time' than on the quantity or quality of output."

The flexibility to work from home is high on many office workers' wish lists, even as large employers like Yahoo! Inc. and Best Buy have recently announced they are cutting back on allowing their workers to do so.

A majority of workers cite avoiding traffic as one of telecommuting's main benefits. It's easy to see why: A recent report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute states that increased traffic congestion has forced American workers to build in extra time to their daily commute at a cost of $121 billion in wasted hours and fuel in 2011.

The longest commuting times are found in Washington, D.C., where it takes drivers up to three hours to reach a destination that would be 30 minutes away with no traffic. On average, commuters are giving themselves one hour for what should be a 20-minute drive with no traffic, the report states.

The impact of these grueling commutes on the workplace is "enormous."

"The end result is a workforce that is late, absent, and/or performing well below their potential," Challenger says.

But even if telecommuting becomes more common over the next decade, it's still likely to only be allowed on a case-by-case basis rather than as part of a blanket company policy.

"No two companies are the same, so each must evaluate policies such as telecommuting based on how it will affect its customers, employees and the bottom line," he says.

Business as usual?

Despite the relatively low number of U.S. telecommuters, workers remain increasingly optimistic about the future of flexible work arrangements.

A recent study, "The Future of Work," conducted in the Chicago area by financial advisory firm Ernst & Young LLP, showed that 96 percent of workers surveyed expect to have more flexible work schedules in the next five to 10 years, while 67 percent said they think working in a physical office location will be increasingly phased out over the same period.

The study suggests employers and employees need to be ready to embrace virtual working arrangements, especially when it comes to recruiting top talent, says Kelly Grier, managing partner of Ernst & Young LLP's Chicago office.

"White collar employees are signaling the desire for continued full-time employment, but expect to be productive on their own terms," Grier says. "Whether it's utilizing independent contractors or conducting work outside of the traditional work day, employers must be ready to adapt to the changing workplace, so they can effectively maintain an engaged workforce."

With more people working remotely, organizations will need to adapt to allow for a more flexible and dynamic workplace environment, the study found. To meet the demands of tomorrow's workers, business managers will also need to alter their management styles to build relationships with colleagues and maintain productive in an increasingly digital realm.

"Employers and employees will need to become comfortable with the idea that flexibility won't mean working less, it will mean working differently," the study states.