Telecommuting Might Alienate Workers Left in the Office

By Stephen Miller Jan 21, 2008
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As telecommuting and other forms of virtual work become increasingly popular, what happens to the workers who are left behind in the office? A new study by a management professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute suggests that the greater the prevalence of teleworkers in an office, the less others in the office are apt to be satisfied with their jobs, with a corresponding decrease in the probability that they will remain with the company.

Telecommuting or "telework" entails working some portion of the week away from the conventional workplace—typically from home—and communicating via computer-based technology. Today, about 37 percent of U.S.-based and foreign companies offer flexible work arrangements such as telework, and these programs are growing at 11 percent per year, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

The Rensselaer study found that factors that may add to the disgruntlement of non-telecommuters in an office include the amount of time co-workers telework, the extent of face-to-face interactions and the amount of job autonomy given to employees. The findings were published in a recent issue of the journal Human Relations.

Burden-Shifting?

While reasons for the adverse impact on non-teleworkers’ satisfaction are varied, study author Timothy Golden, associate professor in the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer, says it potentially could be attributable to:

  • Co-workers’ perceptions that they have decreased flexibility and a higher workload.
  • The ensuing greater frustration that comes with coordinating in an environment with extensive co-worker telework.

“It may be that with a greater prevalence of teleworkers in a work unit, non-teleworkers may find it less personally fulfilling to conduct their work due to the increased obstacles to building and maintaining effective and rewarding co-worker relationships,” Golden says.

Bridging the Gap

Golden suggests that managers might be able to help mitigate some of the adverse impact by:

  • Ensuring greater face-to-face contact between co-workers when employees are in the office.
  • Granting greater job autonomy to accomplish work activities as employees see fit.

“Organizational decision makers need to take into account the broader impact of telework on others in the office, particularly within team-based work environments, and exercise caution when implementing or expanding this work mode based purely on individual desires to telework,” Golden says.

Stephen Miller is manager of SHRM Online's Compensation & Benefits Focus Area.

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