Researchers from the University of South Florida, Baruch College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute undertook a massive review of much of the available research that has been conducted on telecommuting and the workplace. Their findings were published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. What they found is that we have a lot to learn about how telecommuting affects us. Mixed in with the uncertainty are some useful tidbits for enterprises and employees.
Telecommuting is complicated to define. We know that it is growing. One report cited in the study said that 88% of companies now offer some form of telecommuting. The article cites estimates that 3.3 million Americans are telecommuting. All indications are that number will rise due to globalization of the economy.
What is telecommuting? For the purposes of the study, the authors defined it this way:
Telecommuting is a work practice that involves members of an organization substituting a portion of their typical work hours (ranging from a few hours per week to nearly full-time) to work away from a central workplace -- typically principally from home -- using technology to interact with others as needed to conduct work tasks.
In other words, telecommuting isn't limited to a full-time work-from-home situation. A flexible arrangement counts, too. That will be important as we get into the findings.
Perhaps the best way to figure out what we do know about telecommuting is first to list what we don't know. Here are some common myths or anecdotal impressions of telecommuting that we can't support with data. It doesn’t mean some might not be true (or true for some telecommuters but not all), but we don't have data to support it.
3 Telecommuting Myths
- It helps us with work-life balance. The literature reviewed in the study was mixed at best, and pointed mostly to the idea that working from home doesn't help. Interestingly enough, they speculated the reason is that working from home simply increased family obligations at home.
- It helps with employee retention. The perception among proponents of telecommuting has been that flexible work arrangements around telecommuting might make people more likely to stay with an arrangement that helped them. It turns out, probably because of the growth in telecommuting, that people are as willing to leave a job with a telecommuting arrangement as they are to leave a job without it.
- It hurts relationships with my managers or chances at promotion. No study has been able to show definitive proof that people are scored lower on evaluations or are promoted less often for working from home than their in-office counterparts. However, the study does point out that, for the most part, people with work flexibility are already high performers or in roles where the practice is common. This is one to watch as telecommuting becomes more common.
It is hard to pin down the exact pros and cons of telecommuting, because it means so many different things. For example, a person who works from home one day a week and spends four days in an office has an entirely different experience than someone who works from home five days per week and hasn't seen his or her boss in person for a year.
One of the major factors in success or failure of telecommuting is social isolation. The benefits of telecommuting are often hindered by the fact that telecommuting workers might not interact with their team enough. One area the researchers stressed was finding ways to mitigate social isolation.
Successful telecommuting relationships had at least three common traits: Workers had great relationships with managers and their colleagues; teams had good information exchange best practices in place; and the workers had jobs with a fair amount of autonomy.
3 Telecommuting Benefits
If all three of the above factors were in place, workers could expect important benefits from telecommuting:
- Lower work stress and less exhaustion. Shortened commutes, increased flexibility, and comfortable surroundings lead people to report lower burnout and stress rates that are statistically significant.
- Higher performance. The data was interesting on this front. Studies that relied on self-reported metrics of success reported lower performance. People were harder on their performance at home. However, studies that relied on manager reported metrics or independently measurable data found workers were more productive and got higher ratings from their managers. It makes you wonder if people "goofed off" more at home but still got more work done in the time they were working. Whatever the reason, workers do better with some telecommuting mixed in.
- Higher job satisfaction. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the study. Those with flexibility to work from home had higher job satisfaction than before they were telecommuting, but only to a point. According to one of the studies reviewed by the researchers, those who worked 15.1 hours or less at home had the highest increases in job satisfaction. After 15.1 hours, the satisfaction gains decreased or flattened. Eventually, those working from home for four or five days had lower job satisfaction due to social isolation.
Lower stress and higher performance? Seems like a no-brainer to start letting your workers all spend at least 15.1 hours at home, right?
Not so fast. There was one major area where telecommuting was shown to hurt enterprises -- innovation. Innovation relies on information exchange, and information exchange, you will remember, is one of the areas in which you need a really good plan to make telecommuting work. Companies who failed to integrate information exchange into their telecommuting policies found their telecommuters and the teams they were on to be less innovative. In the long run that situation could lead to underperformance.
In other words, there's the crux of the whole telecommuting issue. If you don't have plans and practices in place to wholly integrate telecommuters into meetings, discussions with colleagues, and other work flow, you may find it helps workers be happier without giving you what you need.
[Remember when so many people made fun of Marissa Meyers for saying this? Read Innovation: Disperse or Congregate.]
The findings point to one obvious solution to this problem -- allowing for only part-time telecommuting. Part-time telecommuting clearly gets the biggest benefits in terms of engagement and performance. It prevents social isolation. It allows for knowledge transfer when the teams are together in person, but it doesn't chain your people to their desks.
When part-time telecommuting is not possible, you need to make a conscious effort to ensure either that you can afford to leave telecommuters alone in their mostly autonomous jobs, or that your team specializes in knowledge transfer. The researchers point out that companies like Apple and Google, which make products for workplace collaboration and remote work, had the least problems with social isolation. In other words, it can be done if you use the resources well. Technology is making it easier.
Unfortunately, the concept of telecommuting is so broad, the findings can't be more definitive than that. Working one day at home is not the same as spending a week working from home. Managers and their skills and attitudes differ. Personal temperaments differ, and even job types can change the success or failure of a telecommuting arrangement. Still, these guidelines will help you decide when telecommuting can work best, and how to employ it.
What do you think? Have you ever telecommuted, or managed someone who has? Do these findings match your experience? Tell us about it in the comments section below.