The news of high-profile companies stepping back from telecommuting arrives just as Minnesota is emerging as a national work-at-home hot spot.
The Twin Cities has experienced the fifth-biggest rise among metro areas nationwide in the number of workers based at least partly at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau commuting surveys. Between 2000 and 2010, the number rose by almost 22,000 people, to about 82,500, according to estimates.
And Minnesota is the only state with two big job centers, Mankato and St. Cloud, among the top 10 metro areas nationally in the share of people working from home.
But now Best Buy, Yahoo and other companies say employees need to be in the office to collaborate and drive innovation.
The surge here has a lot to do with a tech-based, white-collar workforce that can work at home, advocates say, combined with a spirit of innovation.
John Gustav-Wrathall works for a law firm full of tech-savvy patent experts with Silicon Valley ties. The day the firm stopped printing anything at all on paper, back in 2009, was the day the paralegal himself stopped walking the hallways for signatures and found himself marooned all day by himself.
It didn't take long to occur to him to ask why he was still wasting an hour roundtrip by bike or bus to work in downtown Minneapolis and still be there while his son arrived to an empty home for hours each weekday afternoon.
"There's no replacement for a parent being there to talk about their day," he said. "The firm [Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner] is allowing me to really fulfill my life goals -- to provide for my family while being a more effective dad."
The Twin Cities was the only metro area to "really push telecommuting as a major answer" to traffic congestion when it was one of five to win a share of $1 billion in federal Urban Partnership Agreement funding a few years back, said Adeel Lari of the State and Local Policy Program at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
With help from scores of employers, he said, eWorkPlace Minnesota blew past its goal of 2,700 participants and enrolled 4,200 telecommuters.
Key figures in the Minnesota movement have become evangelists nationally.
Kathy Kacher, a home-based consultant in Burnsville, was in New Jersey this week meeting with Johnson & Johnson about how to maintain robust teamwork even when employees aren't physically together.
She was taken aback to learn that Best Buy, whose flex policy she helped to develop, was largely scrapping it, a move that came amid debate over Yahoo's announcement last month of its decision to do the same.
"Organizations that are eliminating work from home are not doing it because it isn't beneficial," she said. "They're doing it because they apparently can't measure the results unless they see people sitting at desks. But the only thing you guarantee is that you made everyone show up."
The exceptionally high work-at-home numbers in Mankato and St. Cloud may be an extension of the same phenomenon in the Twin Cities.
"The Twin Cities area has a lot of flexible, friendly workplaces and we know there are probably telecommuters here who are drawing paychecks from someone in the Twin Cities," said Jonathan Zierdt, president and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth. "So it's probably not just our market but a culture in this state where people have a good work ethic and can be trusted to work at home."
The Census Bureau also noticed an association with telecommuting college towns, which Mankato and St. Cloud both are. And the top work-at-home metros are often on the far fringes of bigger metro areas, with long-range commuters opting to work partly from home.
"I am sure there is a commuting aspect to it," said Erin Kelly, a University of Minnesota sociologist who studied productivity under Best Buy's flex schedule program. "But the increase in working at home mainly reflects changes in technology that make it easier to do it -- together with employers who are realizing they can manage at-home workers."
About three-quarters of the 48 eWorkPlace employers reported that productivity increased, while only a smattering sensed a decrease, according to a Humphrey School report.
The debate since Yahoo's announcement is based on a myth, Lari said. It's pitting one setting for work against another without acknowledging that it doesn't have to be either/or.
"People who telecommute don't work from home all the time. It's more like 50 percent of the time," he said. "They don't lose that connection. Middle managers we worked with were always reluctant. 'How will we know they are working?' I always asked, 'How do you know they are working when they come to the office?' They are talking Vikings and Twins, they are talking the weather. We worked on developing measurement tools so they knew that people were working."
In the stats, home-based can mean one day a week, most often Monday or Friday. The base numbers include anyone working at home, including farmers, so it's the more recent increases that point to telecommuting as such.
There has been a huge national jump in working at home since 2000, although experts agree that part of that may be because of the recession: Job losses likely resulted in some people becoming freelancers and consultants.
"Home-based work in computer, engineering and science occupations increased by 69 percent between 2000 and 2010," at least in part because technology freed people to be more mobile, the census report found.
The Twin Cities' work-at-home growth in sheer numbers places it fifth on a list topped by Atlanta (nearly 65,000 more people working at home). The latter is a national poster child for suburban sprawl, and experts did notice a link between sprawling low-density development, which can produce frustrating commutes, and growth in telecommutes.
Still, Twin Cities experts said this growth isn't merely an escape from the hassles of big-city life. It has benefits for workers in achieving balance in their lives, and for firms as well.
"Organizations are trying to cut costs," Kacher said, "and one way is through real estate. It's not hard to have people like travel agents work from home: It saves lots of money on real estate, reduces turnover and people have more time."
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