A spreading coronavirus could increase telecommuting

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A new study suggests working from home isn’t a career-killer

The expectation that the coronavirus -- COVID-19 -- will spread around the United States has prompted some businesses to consider plans to encourage employees to work from home.

Virtual workers are much more common than they once were, but many companies have never instituted the practice on a wide scale. So what can employees expect if they suddenly no longer have to go to the office each day?

New research from the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggests that while telecommuting might carry a stigma in some corporate circles, it’s not deserved.

Career concerns

This timely study found telecommuting promotes a strong work-life balance, boosts employee productivity, and even has benefits for the environment. But employees may wonder how working outside of an office will affect their careers.

The study, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, concluded that people working from home and those working in offices are equally likely to be promoted. 

“Although telecommuting has experienced rapid growth, some workers are reluctant to try telecommuting for fear that it will hurt their career,” said Timothy Golden, a professor at Lally. “This research helps answer that critical question: Does it hurt your career if you telecommute? My study shows that it depends heavily on the employee’s work context.”

Curbing health risks

Companies that have already embraced telecommuting may be more likely to encourage their U.S. employees to work from home. Goldman says employees at these firms have the least to fear career-wise. He says the more a company encourages telecommuting, the more likely telecommuters are to receive promotions.

In countries where the virus is more widespread, institutions have already taken steps to reduce large gatherings to minimize new infections. In Japan, the government has ordered all schools to close for one month.

In China, which has the most cases, schools will remain closed until the virus subsides. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has raised school closings as a possibility if the virus begins to rapidly spread.

Corporate America may be considering similar steps, which could lead to a sharp increase in telecommuting. Last week, IBM asked its employees in areas where the virus is spreading to work from home if they can. 

In London, a Chevron office asked several hundred employees to work from home after one employee was tested for COVID-19. Other companies have placed restrictions on employee travel.

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