Stopping the Contagion of Telecommuting Misinformation
Recently, the press release for an article appearing in Academy of Management Discoveries made some waves with the headline “Contagion of off-site work drains the company office of its value and appeal, new study finds.” Media picked up the headline and ran with it, offering comments such as “…people started working from home because everyone else was doing it” (New York Times) and “Giving your employees the chance to work from home might not be the win-win proposition many believe it to be” (Business News Daily).
Before you use this information to kill telecommuting because it’s bad for business, the press release about that article does not tell the whole story. In fact, a review of the methodology and results from the underlying study suggests the media’s portrayal is not exactly accurate.
The premise that working outside the office acts like a virus that kills off everyone's motivation and the company's values is not justified by the results of the study. Those comments came up only in some of the original interviews the authors conducted with 29 IT employees of the company. Follow-up surveys conducted with hundreds of employees from across the organization did not even study this “contagion effect.”
Rather, survey respondents from across the organization were more likely to indicate they telecommuted for beneficial reasons. The three most frequently cited reasons for working from home were the perceptions of being more productive (67 percent), being better able to manage work-family demands (63 percent) and because it made their job more satisfying (43 percent). Only 29 percent reported that it was because few people from their team worked in the office much. While selecting that reason predicted how much time people spent working from home, so did selecting other reasons. It was subsequently unclear how many people selected the office being empty as their primary or only reason for working from home.
To be sure, there is likely going to be some loss of social interaction when people telecommute regularly, but this is not news to anyone. In the early 2000s, the Center for Work and Family at Boston College produced a report that argued:
Not every position can be accomplished remotely and not every individual is suitable to work remotely or to manage remote workers. Assessment of person and job-fit to a telecommuting arrangement is essential.
The report also concluded that telecommuting by one or many employees will impact other organizational members, relationships among co-workers, and relationships between telecommuters and their managers.
An article written by Wayne Cascio and published by the Academy of Management Perspectives in 2000 – which was cited in the recent Academy of Management Discoveries article – already highlighted potential issues of isolation, loss of synergies due to decreased personal interactions, and decreased levels of trust, if not managed properly.
So, slow down the frenzy already.
If you have telecommuting at your office and it’s working well, congratulations: You’re helping employees by providing them a more flexible workplace. If not, then the recent article published in the Academy of Management Discoveries is not going to help you. It really does nothing but highlight two things we already knew.
First, a no-holds-barred approach to telecommuting may not always be in a company’s best interests. If employees are free to pick and choose when they come into the office (or if they come in at all), you run the risk of creating a scenario in which people stop showing up to work because when they choose to go, they don’t get anything out of it. Rather than simply letting employees do whatever they want when it comes to telecommuting, companies should be deliberate about how they go about implementing that flexibility.
Second, regardless of how well it’s managed, not everyone is going to think working from home is the ideal work arrangement. Everyone has different needs they fulfill through their work – including needs for achievement and affiliation. If people value face-to-face physical interactions as a way of meeting their affiliation needs, then obviously they may not thrive as well in a virtual environment.
Neither of these two issues, though, are new in any way and have been studied in past research (though, admittedly, more research on this topic can always be done). Regardless, it is important for us all to remember that telecommuting is not something we should allow to simply pop up in an organization. Like any other work process, it requires a strategy, effective management, and integration and coordination, among other work processes. It also requires that workers are a fit with this way of working and that management processes and infrastructure can effectively support it.
So, before you conclude that telecommuting is bad for business, you should delve deeper into the research.
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