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As Yahoo CEO sparks debate over telecommuting, advocates say Chicagoans are spending too much time at the office

Chicago's long commute (Flickr/Seth Anderson)
Leaders at internet giant Yahoo have announced plans to stop letting employees work from home.

Last week, it was reported that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new CEO, will force the web company’s few hundred remote workers to come back to the office.

The move was controversial because in some ways Yahoo is bucking a growing trend. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of workers telecommuting in the U.S. grew by 73 percent.

So where does Chicago fit into this trend?

Despite significant growth, Chicago lags behind San Diego, Atlanta, Seattle and a slew of other urban areas in the percentage of total workers who work mainly from home. According to 2009 data, Chicago was at 2.3 percent - the same as the national average at the time (it’s now 2.5 percent).

“Companies continue to think about flexibility and telework as being this sort of soft fluffy thing,” said Kyra Cavanaugh. Her consulting firm, Life Meets Work, helps Chicago-area businesses transition to what she calls a “flexible workplace model.” She argues letting people work from home and allowing flexible hours increases productivity and employee satisfaction, and reduces absenteeism.

On top of the advantages to telecommuting, there are also disadvantages to commuting in Chicago: a recent study shows that it can take Chicago drivers four times as long as it should to get to and from work.

But Cavanaugh thinks the city’s not ready to go too far down the telecommuting road.

“Chicago is the place where, you know, we smelt steel and slaughter cattle, and our attitudes about workplace practices represent that still,” she said.

Chicago-area employers who encourage telecommuting include Aetna, Bank of America and the federal government. The federal Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 encourages federal agencies to save money by allowing eligible employees to work from home, and from 2005-2011 there was a 424 percent increase in the numbers of federal employees working out of the office.

Follow Lewis Wallace on Twitter.

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