Tax tips, fuel savings: Pros and cons of telecommuting

by March 5, 2014
Telecommuting Dad

Whether permanent or temporary, telecommuting adds flexibility for an employee. Photo: Eugene Katz

One of the weather-related stories I found intriguing over the past couple of months was the emergency telecommuting that had to be done; I figured even employers reluctant to allow working from home were forced to as slick roads and storms kept employees off the roads.

Well, we have another reason to address telework trends and tips, as National Telecommuter Appreciation Week runs this month through March 8.   It’s one of those industry schticks that nevertheless is a decent peg for a look at a workplace perk that intrigues many employees.

And despite some high-visibility rolling back of work-from-home privileges at big firms like Yahoo! and Hewlett-Packard, each of which reined in teleworkers saying that teams needed to be together in times of crisis, human resource managers say overall the workspace arrangement is on the way up.  In fact, recent reports say that after dealing with a spate of snow days this year, even public school officials are considering tele-study options for public school students, rather than have them miss an entire day of instruction when inclement weather strikes. (Is nothing sacred!?)

Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Council are out with a recent report, “The State of Telework in the U.S.,” that is a wealth of statistics on remote workers; the groups themselves acknowledge that quantifying the phenomenon is difficult, however. Telecommuting grew nearly 80 percent from 2005 to 2012 and the report estimates that some 50 million workers could be telecommuting if they and their employer wanted the arrangement.  This report is well worth checking out as you develop questions for local companies.

Good, bad and the ugly of telecommuting

woman lying in park with laptop open

Photo: Ianqui Doodle on Flickr

WorldAtWork offers a fact sheet about myths and truths of telework.

GreenBiz.com shows the benefits of telecommuting from the employers’ side, in terms of savings on electricity and other overhead; it also says the average worker will save thousands of dollars in fuel and two weeks of their life per year avoiding the time hassles of commuting.

And here’s a fascinating look at “Why telecommuting really matters, in six charts,” by The Atlantic. Searching with the hashtag #telecommuting turns up a variety of other resources and hits, too.

FlexJobs, which bills itself as an online service for jobseekers, is just out with at list of the “Top 10 states for telecommuting jobs.”  Your readers might want to know why your state is – or is not – among that roster.  And here’s FlexJobs Top 100 Companies for Remote Jobs in 2014 list – again, did any area employers make the cut?  Why not do a roundup or infographic on telework policies at your area’s major employers and start-ups?  Ask about specific rules – I’ve read that some employers require, for example, that another adult be present and taking care of any children in the home so workers are not distracted.  Do others use technology to keep tabs on web surfing and the like?  What about lunch hours, errand-running and other policies?

Also look into any state or county-sponsored programs that support or encourage telework.  Check with economic development and urban planning agencies.

Tax issues related to telecommuting

It’s not just about working in your slippers and track suit. The Telework Coalition, a lobbying group, which says we need a paradigm shift to workspace and transportation issues.  The coalition’s website seems a bit out of date but is worth perusing to find story ideas related to your own beat or interests; it lists a few state telework commissions for example.

The group observes on its website that telecommuting reduces pollution, gives disabled people or those in rural communities more job opportunities, reduces dependence on oil and offers other benefits.  The coalition promotes the Telecommuter Tax Fairness Act, which aims to help people who telework across state lines, which could subject them to multi-state income tax liability. You might talk with local certified public accountants or enrolled agents (specialized tax experts) about state tax “nexus” and how that could affect local telecommuters.

Many telecommuters lick their chops over the home office deduction, but taking that tax break isn’t as easy as it sounds – although the form and formula is a lot easier starting this year, as the Wall Street Journal reports.  Still, what many people don’t realize is that space you claim a deduction for must be strictly used for your business – not homework, Pinterest, folding laundry or watching Netflix.  And, as the IRS says, the working-from-home arrangement must be “for the convenience of the employer,” not because the worker prefers to avoid time in traffic.

Again, caveats and tips from local tax specialists would come in handy for readers still amid income tax preparation.

What about workplace jealousy?  Not all jobs are a fit for working for remote work, and how do employers handle the envy of those who must brave all traffic jams and blizzards to get to their desks?

And I always like to check in on the contrarian view.  What are the downsides of working at home, from the career/networking, psychological and productivity standpoints?