The future of remote work

More than 26 million Americans—about 16% of the total workforce—now work remotely at least part of the time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statisticssxcsbsxeayassayrydxc (BLS). Between 2005 and 2015, the number of U.S. employees who telecommuted increased by 115%. Those workers tend to be older, more educated, full time and nonunion.

Telecommuting arrangements can vary greatly for different workers. They can be fully or partially remote; they may work from a home office, co-working space or other location; and increasingly they may be geographically distant from the organization or clients they serve.

And such remote work can benefit both employers and employees, experts say. Employers can hire geographically distributed talent and reduce overhead expenses, while employees can gain flexibility, save time, and reduce transportation and some child-care costs. But the impact of such arrangements on productivity, creativity and morale has been up for debate, primarily because working from home offers employees fewer opportunities to talk and network with their colleagues.

Now, to learn more about telecommuting and its implications for the future of work, psychologists are studying remote work’s benefits, drawbacks and best practices. A related line of research is also exploring how to maximize the effectiveness of geographically distributed teams that rely primarily on virtual means of communication.

“Telework is here to stay,” says industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologist Timothy Golden, PhD, professor and area coordinator of enterprise management and organization at

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “As researchers and managers practicing in the field, what we need to understand more fully is not if, but how, teleworking is best conducted to maximize work outputs.”

Small but tangible benefits

Many workers view telecommuting as a job perk, with more than half seeking the arrangement as a way to improve work-life balance. People choose to work remotely to avoid daily commutes, reduce workplace distractions and fulfill family care responsibilities (Owl Labs State of Remote Work, 2017). In other cases, an organization may require its employees to work from home, for instance, if a branch office is shut down.

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Of course, some jobs are better suited to remote work than others. Knowledge workers such as computer programmers who can do most of their work on a laptop—tasks like creating software code, reports or spreadsheets—and people whose productivity is easily monitored, such as insurance claims adjusters or call center workers, are the most likely to telecommute, says Ravi Gajendran, PhD, assistant professor in the department of global leadership and management at Florida International University.

In a study of 273 teleworkers from sales, marketing, accounting, engineering and other departments at one organization, Gajendran and Golden found that employees whose jobs were highly complex but did not require significant collaboration or social support performed better when telecommuting than when working in the company’s office (Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2019).

“Employees whose jobs require concentration or significant problem-solving often need focused time to think deeply about the task at hand,” Golden says. “In a shared office full of potential interruptions, that can be hard to do.”

Even within a specific role, some duties may be well suited to teleworking, while others are better performed in person. An employee can write reports or articles from a home office, but interpersonally sensitive tasks that may involve nonverbal communication—conducting a quarterly performance review with a subordinate, for example—tend to go more smoothly when handled face to face, says Golden.

“It’s not so much that telecommuting is good or bad; it’s just that sometimes it’s advantageous and sometimes it’s not,” Gajendran says.

In a 2015 research review, Golden and his colleagues found that, overall, telecommuting increased job satisfaction, performance and feelings of commitment to an organization among employees. People who teleworked also tended to experience less work stress or exhaustion. Drawbacks included social and professional isolation, fewer opportunities for information sharing and a blurring of boundaries between work and personal life (Allen, T.D., et al., Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2015).

“The research has generally shown that for most outcomes, remote work leads to small but tangible benefits,” says I/O psychologist Bradford Bell, PhD, professor and director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS) at Cornell University. “Employees who telecommute tend to be slightly more satisfied, and their performance tends to be the same or a little higher.”

But researchers also caution that teleworking is rarely an all-or-nothing arrangement. Some employees work from home a few days a month, some a few days a week and some full time—and the extent of a worker’s telecommuting can dictate his or her experience. For instance, a meta-analysis by Gajendran and a co-author found that telecommuters’ relationships with colleagues generally only suffered if they worked remotely three or more days each week (Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 92, No. 6, 2007).

Along with social isolation, the clouding of work-­family boundaries is a significant challenge for remote employees. Teleworkers operating from a home office lack the physical and psychological separation between these two domains that exists in a traditional office setting, says Golden. On the one hand, family and social obligations can easily bleed over into work hours. But more often, studies show, teleworkers’ professional obligations tend to extend beyond the traditional workday, interrupting family time and preventing teleworkers from ever truly disconnecting.

One analysis showed that the blurring of such boundaries causes remote workers to associate their homes with their work roles as work obligations repeatedly intrude upon family time (Eddleston, K.A., & Mulki, J., Group & Organization Management, Vol. 42, No. 3, 2017). Teleworkers also appear to work more. A 2013 Gallup poll found that teleworkers log an extra four hours per week on average compared with their counterparts in the office.

Employers may see these outcomes as positive, translating into higher productivity and better workplace citizenship. Gajendran and his colleagues found that teleworkers often go above and beyond—for instance, by responding to emails outside of work hours—to demonstrate their organizational commitment (Personnel Psychology, Vol. 62, No. 2, 2015). But experts say that without firmer boundaries, employees can experience exhaustion and burnout and that such overwork should be discouraged by managers and organizations.

Social support for teleworkers

Despite the largely positive findings on the benefits of telecommuting, just 7% of American companies offer the option to most or all of their employees, according to recent BLS data. Some early adopters—including Best Buy, IBM and Yahoo—are even reversing policies that once allowed employees to telecommute, citing leadership changes and a growing need for creative collaboration.

Company leaders’ hesitation around flexible work arrangements is often driven by the fear that performance will suffer if employees aren’t closely monitored.

“Often, managers use busyness, working late or other proxies to infer that an employee is effective,” says Jeanne Wilson, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “In a remote work situation, managers must rely more heavily on results. That’s a hard transition for a lot of people to make.”

But a handful of organizations are effectively using research insights to build evidence-based remote work programs—and reaping the rewards. Health-care company Aetna, for example, has a decade-old remote work program that screens, trains and supports teleworkers—a group that now makes up around half of the company’s workforce. The company has collaborated with psychologists at Cornell University, including Bell, to proactively address issues such as employee isolation, and has seen rewards including reduced real estate costs and better talent retention.

“Companies that have backtracked on remote work—such as Yahoo and IBM—make headlines because they’re outliers in the general trend toward teleworking,” says Bell. In a survey his team conducted, nearly all companies interviewed said they intend to continue offering teleworking or expand its use in the future (“Workplace Redesign: Current Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities,” CAHRS White Paper, 2019).

In another example of research-informed telecommuting, Kaila Jacoby, a consultant with a master’s degree in I/O psychology, leads a work-from-home task force at DCI Consulting, a human resources risk-management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. The task force has created guidelines for the company’s managers and employees who telework, drawing on research on work-family conflict (Greer, T.W., & Payne, S.C., The Psychologist-Manager Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2014), employee engagement (Masuda, A.D., et al., Career Development International, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2017) and other dimensions of the remote work arrangement.

Jacoby recommends that firms get company-wide buy-in for telework and include remote workers in all team- and company-wide events, via video conferencing when necessary. And because teleworkers can’t make social connections during “watercooler” chats, Jacoby also suggests alternative ways to support staff relationship-building, including online message boards and small stipends for virtual lunch or coffee dates.

“Companies should never just implement telecommuting without changing anything else,” says I/O psychologist Kristen Shockley, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “They also need to shift their culture and norms to support the new arrangement.”

Before allowing employees to work remotely, organizations should reevaluate policies around performance evaluation, promotion and salary increases to ensure they don’t favor on-site workers, she says.

But the onus for making remote work a success does not fall solely on employers. Employees also need to cultivate effective routines; set boundaries with managers, colleagues and family members; and make an effort to stay socially and professionally engaged, Jacoby says.

For some, operating from a co-working space—a shared office that provides telecommuters and freelancers with internet access, meeting rooms and other amenities—can help address social isolation. In an ongoing effort known as the University of Michigan Coworking Project, a team of researchers has used surveys, interviews and participatory observations to show that such spaces can create a sense of community without threatening remote workers’ prized autonomy (Garrett, L.E., et al., Organization Studies, Vol. 38, No. 6, 2017).

Golden affirms that co­working spaces may alleviate social isolation, “but it’s unclear whether they address the professional isolation that out-of-office employees tend to experience,” he says.

Interestingly, the growing popularity of remote work could end up dampening its benefits, suggests research by Gajendran. He found that when tele­commuting is less common at a company, employees tend to perform best when they work primarily remotely. But when most employees at an organization are allowed to telecommute, working remotely more often does not improve work performance, suggesting that enthusiasm about the arrangement may wane in such cases (Personnel Psychology, Vol. 62, No. 2, 2015).

“In most organizations, telecommuting is not a right; it’s a privilege that you earn. But if everybody is getting it, people may value it less,” Gajendran says. “It all depends on the context.”

Still, he says, companies that offer telework arrangements strategically—by making it contingent upon hitting performance targets, for instance—may be able to avoid such pitfalls.

Connecting remote teams

In another line of research, psychologists are exploring how to maximize the efficiency and productivity of teams that are geographically dispersed.

In today’s global economy, virtual teams can be distributed across different offices or departments in a single organization or they can span time zones, industries and national borders. Greater physical distances can present logistical concerns when tasks require real-time communication—for instance, during a military operation. In addition, cultural differences, such as how direct eye contact is perceived, influence the way people interact.

The way teams are configured—the number and distribution of members and sites—also matters. One study found that teams with one large and multiple smaller subgroups tend to develop an ingroup-­outgroup mentality and experience more conflict and coordination problems, whereas teams with individual members who are geographically isolated report fewer such problems (O’Leary, M.B., & Mortensen, M., Organization Science, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2010).

Fortunately, geographic distance is not destiny, says Wilson, whose research shows that communication and shared identity within a team can mediate the effects of physical separation. In a study of 733 work relationships among colleagues from a variety of industries, she found that relationship quality was more closely tied to “perceived proximity”—or relational closeness—than it was to physical proximity (O’Leary, M.B., et al., MIS Quarterlysxcsbsxeayassayrydxc, Vol. 38, No. 4, 2014).

Teams with a strong group identity—for instance, those that have unified against a competing team or organization—tend to have more perceived proximity, Wilson says. At the personal level, team members who disclose personal information, such as a favorite television show or the birth of a child, also build stronger connections and more trust.

“Trust among team members starts lower in virtual teams than in face-to-face teams, but over time, it can build to the same levels,” she says.

Other researchers have found that formalizing a virtual team’s goals, roles and communication methods at the outset improves effectiveness (Gibson, C.B., et al., Journal of International Business Studies, Vol. 50, No. 6, 2019). In addition to formally exploring any cultural or ideological differences, collaborators should also consider how such teams are led. A study of 101 virtual teams co-authored by Steve Kozlowski, PhD, professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University, shows that shared leadership rather than traditional hierarchical leadership is associated with improved team performance (Hoch, J.E., & Kozlowski, S.W.J., Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 99, No. 3, 2014).

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“As teams become more virtual, it may be impossible for a single person to direct an entire project,” Kozlowski says. “In these cases, leadership functions need to be shifted to the team itself, so members with specific expertise can drive problem-solving in various areas.”

Looking ahead

Researchers already know a lot about how to coordinate behavior and motivate people working in face-to-face teams, says Kozlowski. Moving forward, he hopes to see researchers studying virtual teams do a better job of building on those existing insights, such as by investigating how to coordinate knowledge sharing in virtual teams. Meanwhile, Wilson is expanding her focus to explore the roles of extroversion and attractiveness—both of which are associated with leadership—in virtual team dynamics.

In the teleworking sphere, psychologists are confident about a continuing upward trend—Bell anticipates such growth as businesses aim to attract employees in a tight labor market and as communication technologies become more sophisticated—but they’re still probing a number of unanswered questions. Those include the effects of increasing the extent of telecommuting, best practices for managers and the relative effectiveness of various communication methods, particularly video, says Golden. Others are exploring issues of isolation and overwork, how first-time teleworkers adjust to their new circumstances and which types of employees thrive when working remotely.

“Telecommuting is a management tool just like any other,” Gajendran says. “It’s time for organizations to move beyond seeing it as a family-friendly work arrangement. When done well, remote work has the potential to improve performance, increase employee satisfaction and benefit a business.” 

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