Career Watch: The ugly side of telecommuting

Research suggests that non-teleworkers feel as if the teleworkers were less an integral part of the work unit

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor, Timothy Golden, talks about the unhappy side of telecommuting.

Telecommuting is painted as a boon for workers. Is it?

Research suggests teleworkers experience a number of positive outcomes. But recently, a study of mine was published in the journal Human Relations that investigates telework's impact on co-workers. Essentially, the study found that as the proportion of teleworkers in a work unit increased, non-teleworkers were less satisfied with these co-workers.

What sorts of complaints did you hear from the workers who stayed in the office?

Non-teleworkers seemed to feel as if the teleworkers were less an integral part of the work unit, and they did not feel as close to them.

There may be several reasons for this. First, non-teleworkers may experience decreased flexibility to conduct their work activities, due to greater restrictions in terms of coordinating their own tasks and schedules. For instance, there are some sensitive or complex things that are simply best discussed face to face, and these types of discussions may not be as easily accomplished if one of the employees is not in the office full time.

Second, non-teleworkers may experience changes in the scope or amount of workload due to the absence of the teleworker from the office. For instance, non-teleworkers may feel pressured to respond to requests immediately if a manager stops by their office or cubicle, whereas these same requests might have otherwise been handled by the teleworker if they were in the office. Sometimes, due to either the immediacy of the request or the fact that someone of importance is standing in front of them asking, the non-teleworkers may experience additional workload.

What can companies do to alleviate the dissatisfaction?

Managers need to ensure that teleworkers spend greater time interacting face to face with their non-teleworking co-workers. This might be accomplished by scheduling meetings when the teleworkers are in the office and ensuring that informal interactions occur as well.

Managers should also be sure to grant high levels of job autonomy to non-teleworkers so that they are not constrained as much by the absence from the office of their teleworking co-workers. Perhaps managers might structure work activities so as to reduce the level of dependence non-teleworkers have with teleworkers, to ensure that they can operate freely and without feeling as if teleworkers are making their jobs less easy to accomplish.

Generally, it may be that managers need to somehow re-create those informal conversations that often occur by the elevators or water cooler, so that all members of the work group feel connected to each other and maintain affinity and respect.

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