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Telecommuting study reveals surprises and challenges

A study conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota Extension looks at how telecommuting in Minnesota has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Tablet computer with blank screen on a businessman workplace
Researchers surveyed more than 1,200 Minnesota employees and employers, in addition to conducting focus groups, on how telecommuting has changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking forward, the state can expect the greatest levels of telecommuting from people with longer commutes, two-year college degrees and metro-area homes. The data serves as a snapshot in time; it has evolved since 2021 and will continue to change.
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A new study from University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Department of Transportation offers the most comprehensive look to date at how telecommuting in Minnesota has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In 2020, Minnesota saw a pivotal shift in the number of people working from home due to the pandemic. MnDOT wanted to capture Minnesota-specific data to understand who is working from home, how it is going, and what the future might look like.

"These findings can help us better understand and manage traffic patterns and volumes," said lead researcher Xinyi Qian, director of University of Minnesota Extension’s Tourism Center.

"Interestingly, the results contradict stereotypes regarding who is telecommuting, as there are many factors that may influence whether employers allow and whether employees take advantage of remote work."

Boomers telecommute most

While the image of an average telecommuter tends to skew young, Extension researchers found that Baby Boomers — the oldest among workers — telecommuted the most. The researchers surveyed more than 1,200 Minnesota employees and employers, in addition to conducting focus groups.

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Looking forward, the state can expect the greatest levels of telecommuting from people with longer commutes, two-year college degrees and metro-area homes. The data serves as a snapshot in time; it has evolved since 2021 and will continue to change.

Whereas three-quarters of employees reported that their organizations will allow teleworking at least part-time post-COVID, not all employers are on board. Nearly a quarter of surveyed employers oppose all but the most minimal telecommuting going forward, even if work allows for it.

Researchers also uncovered notable differences in perception of telecommuting productivity. Employees rated both COVID-19 telework productivity and performance expectations higher than employers did. Qian and Extension educator Neil Linscheid used online surveys and focus groups to gain insight across multiple demographics and geographic locations.

"This information sets a baseline for understanding commuter traffic patterns, impacts on vehicle miles traveled, and also what the future of MnDOT’s workforce might look like relative to telecommuting," said MnDOT engineer Duane Hill, who proposed the study.

The research took place between spring and fall of 2021, as more employees returned to in-person work.

Concerns: slow internet, disparities among disabled

Broadband expansion in Greater Minnesota
Members of the EDC's Joint Powers Board and local leaders recently aired their frustrations with private entities and the government when it comes to making sure broadband is available to all households from border to border in Kandiyohi County.
The city of Willmar will contract with Hometown Fiber to conduct an audit that will show site-specific internet infrastructure throughout the city.
TDS has begun work on broadband expansion projects around several central Minnesota cities including New London, Spicer, Danube, Brooten and Kerkhoven. The first people are expected to be connected by next summer.
At Tuesday's Kandiyohi County Board meeting, the commissioners approved submitting three letters of support toward three broadband projects hoping to be awarded state Border-to-Border grant funds. An update on projects was also given at the meeting.
LTD is based in Las Vegas, but many of its top officers work in Minnesota.
A cooperative project between Kandiyohi County and Charter Communications will bring broadband to more than 170 rural, unserved homes and small businesses in the county. Charter is investing more than $563,000, and the county has committed nearly $240,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners has approved sending American Rescue Plan Act dollars to another high-speed broadband project, this time in Hawick and Long Lake. Approximately 289 properties will soon have access to fiber-to-the-home broadband, through Vibrant Broadband.
The Willmar City Council gave its Planning and Development staff the OK to continue working with VIBRANT Broadband on a project would bring fiber broadband into the city's Industrial Park. The city could then build off that backbone to offer fiber to homes across the city.
While the news doesn’t seem to be good for Kandiyohi County in regard to receiving a major broadband grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the county continues to work with Meeker County to get a USDA ReConnect grant. The county is also still waiting for word on the state Border to Border grant.

For some employers, telecommuting opens the door to recruiting from talent pools beyond the geographic limits that once were the norm. The research reveals challenges as well. Nearly 20% of respondents reported slow internet or similar connectivity problems.

"We also found people with disabilities are less likely to be able to telecommute, and that should prompt more questions," Qian said.

On the other hand, some findings didn’t deliver much of a surprise. Who are likeliest to telecommute? That distinction belongs to workers with at least a 46-minute each-way commute in congested traffic.

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"Although workplace policies will continue to evolve, this research gives us a better glimpse into the future of teleworking in Minnesota," Hill said.

To learn more, visit MnDOT’s Office of Research & Innovation .

Other notable findings

  • Greater Minnesota respondents were more likely to telecommute no more than one day a week post-pandemic, while Twin Cities respondents were more likely to telecommute two to three days a week. However, there was no difference between Greater Minnesota and the metro area if respondents were likely to commute four to five days a week.
  • People with children at home are more likely to have formal post-pandemic telecommuting agreements with their employers.
  • Roughly a quarter of employers may recruit completely remote talent from outside of Minnesota.

The future of telecommuting is promising: Half of employers support telecommuting one to five days a week post-pandemic, and 14.6% will allow most employees to telecommute as often as they desire post-pandemic.

This article is republished with permission from the University of Minnesota Extension.

Allison Sandve, Extension news media manager, may be contacted at ajsandve@umn.edu, 612-626-4077 (office) or 651-492-0811 (mobile). Contact Extension Communications at extnews@umn.edu.

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