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SHRM Foundation Research


Virtually Out of Site But Do Managers Mind? Impacts of Manager's Perceived Power on Telecommuting Feasibility and Effectiveness 

Funded: November 2009     Completed: March 2013

Sumita Raghuram, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University
Batia Wiesenfeld, Ph.D., New York University
Ravi S. Gajendran, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Executive Summary
Distributed work (as virtual teams, telecommuting, and virtual work) is becoming increasingly prevalent in organizations all over the world.  It offers flexibility to both employers and employees in how work is organized across spatially distributed sites. However, the feasibility and effectiveness of distributed work depends upon supervisory support and their leadership style. We set out to examine the feasibility of distributed work through several studies.

The first study examined the evolution of distributed work over a period of 11 years (Raghuram, S., Tuertcher, P. & Garud, R., 2010. Mapping the field of virtual work: A co-citation analysis. Information Systems Research, 4, 983-999). This study helps us a) understand the intellectual base from which this field has emerged, (b) explore how this field has evolved over time, and (c) identify clusters of research themes that have emerged over time and the relationships between them. Specifically, we use co-citation analysis of research published in all social science disciplines to map the field at three points in time – 1995, 2000 and 2006. Our longitudinal analysis reveals that distributed work that started off as a movement towards cutting down real estate expenses and reducing commute times is now popular as globally distributed virtual teams with people collaborating across cultures (and countries). Of course, a major theme in virtual teams has been conflict or cohesion among culturally disparate members or team leaders.

To understand the issues related to cultural barriers more closely, we collected survey data from distributed workers within China and India. Supervisory power is valued in these countries by both supervisors and subordinates, because of their high power distance culture.  From the Chinese data we find that distributed work has an impact on the degree of influence and control supervisors can exert over the subordinates. Subordinates use their judgment in determining the extent to which they utilize telecommuting so as to minimize any power imbalances. As a result, the frequency of telecommuting is high only when the subordinates perceive that their supervisors’ power (legitimate and reward) is preserved or when the supervisors themselves telecommute. Further, the positive relationship between reward power and telecommuting frequency becomes exaggerated when supervisors themselves telecommute. A paper written up on this study is currently in the revise and resubmit stage with Asia Pacific Journal of Management.

Next, we conducted a study in India using survey data from 411 telecommuting individuals. In this study, we define remoteness in a distributed context as the extent of geographic overlap and the extent of face to face interaction between supervisor and subordinate workplace. We find that remoteness is negatively related to annual appraisal ratings received by a person. Furthermore, this relationship is particularly strong for those who have a poor relationship with their supervisors. However, if the subordinates are able to remain in constant contact with their supervisors via email or other electronic communication media then some of these harmful effects are reduced.

Both these studies are unique in that these are the first few to examine virtual work and supervisor-subordinate relationships in a global setting. Moreover the study in India is one of the first studies to examine the impact of remoteness on actual performance ratings. Although past research claims that distributed work may increase individual performance – we demonstrate that this is contingent upon the leader-member relations. Previous studies have used self-reported measures of performance which can be highly biased. Also, these were conducted in a Western context where supervisor-subordinate relationships can be quite different from the Eastern context.

The implications of our studies are several. For one multinationals have to be careful when they transfer practices that originate in the West. Distributed work has a way of attenuating effects of power and control. When supervisors associate distributed work with reduced power they may withdraw support (coaching, career visibility) or place obstacles (biased performance appraisals and logistical roadblocks). Supervisors may also seek to reclaim power through expecting more face-time from their subordinates.  Understanding these relationships will guide development of appropriate leadership style among managers and shape HRM practices of distributed organizations globally.

To manage effectively, we believe that some face time will have to be built into distributed work programs. This is especially applicable to telecommuting. In the case of virtual teams, the cultural differences will have to be recognized and team members may have to be oriented towards different expectations. Leader and follower styles have to be adapted in order to accommodate for these differences.

Understanding this phenomenon is complex and going forward, it is necessary to compare these results with data from the Western hemisphere. We have recently completed data collection from USA and will be carrying out comparative analysis. 
View the full list of SHRM Foundation funded research.