Slack, Skype, Google Hangouts, Basecamp, BlueJeans. Over the past decade, designers and engineers have invented dozens of new tools to keep us connected to the office without actually going there. Unsurprisingly, those same engineers have been among the first to start using them in large numbers. More programmers are working from home than ever and, among the most experienced, some are even beginning to demand it.
In 2015, an estimated 300,000 full-time employees in computer science jobs worked from home in the US. (This figure also includes related professions such as actuaries and statisticians, but the vast majority are programmers.) Although not the largest group of remote employees in absolute numbers, that’s about 8% of all programmers, which is a significantly larger share than in any other job category, and well above the average for all jobs of just under 3%.
These numbers are not easy to find. Quartz analyzed data from the US census, the American Community Survey, and the American Time Use Survey to estimate how many full-time employees work from home, what jobs they do, and how much time they spend in their home office instead of the office office. We excluded self-employed workers from this analysis, to focus exclusively on the home-working habits of the wage-earning workforce.
Programmers not only work from home more often than other employees, when they do they are more likely to work all day at home. From 2012 to 2015, the average full-time programmer who worked from home said they spent an average of five and a half hours doing so. That’s an 92% increase in the average time spent at home from 2003 to 2005, and nearly double the average for all jobs.
For many programmers, the attractions of working from home are obvious. I’m one of them—I wrote the code for this analysis—and I know all too well the intense concentration required to engineer good solutions to complex problems, as well as the productivity-wrecking frustration of being interrupted mid-flow. Working from home, assuming one can maintain a certain discipline, offers a tranquility seldom found in an office.
Technology companies, used to luring job candidates with office gyms and free meals, must now contend with an increasing number of candidates who don’t want to come to the office at all. In a survey conducted in January by popular programmer website Stack Overflow, 53% of programmers ranked remote work as one of their five most valued benefits—more than health care, working hours, or professional development.
Hiring managers appear to be coming to terms with this, at least for employees with enough clout to negotiate aggressively. The number of programmers who work full-time from home has been growing at an average rate of 11.5% per year over the past decade, but this growth isn’t evenly distributed. According to the Stack Overflow data, better paid and more experienced programmers tend to be the ones who want to work from home, and they are also the ones most likely to be given the opportunity. (There’s another reason managers might be increasingly keen to allow employees to work from home: They want to join them. Managers are single largest group of remote workers in the US.)
It’s unclear if these trends extend beyond the United States. National statistics in other countries are generally not as detailed nor as consistent as those in the US, making direct comparisons tricky. Most available data seem to suggest that working from home is less popular in most European countries, but even more popular in fast-growing economies like China, India, and Indonesia.
The movement of well-paid professionals out of the office could have broad social and political impacts. As a remote worker myself, I’ve brought my coastal salary to a small city in Eastern Texas. I personally know two other remote programmers in similar situations around here. For now the numbers are modest, but they provide a hypothetical path to reversing the intense wealth concentration that has made places like San Francisco and New York City unlivable for most Americans.
It may also just be more humane. Remote workers report being happier and more productive. Stack Overflow found programmers who always work from home are about 11% more satisfied with their jobs than those who never do. (This could also be because they tend to be more experienced and better paid.)
That said, working from home has many critics. Silicon Valley standard-bearers Facebook and Google discourage it. IBM recently announced it was telling thousands of remote employees to return to the office. Still, those companies’ qualms don’t appear to affect programmers’ rising enthusiasm for working from home.
The R code written for this analysis, as well as methodological notes, are published on Github.