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Nov 24, 2015

Finding the sweet spot with telecommuting arrangements

Studies indicate the amount of time out of the office is a key consideration

By Claudine Kapel

For many employees, the opportunity to work from home — even just occasionally — is highly valued.

Those who work from home periodically appreciate being able to avoid the time-consuming commute and the rush-hour traffic. And sometimes it can be vital to carve out some interruption-free time away from the office to just focus on a pressing project or deadline.

But, as with most things, telecommuting needs to be approached with a sense of balance and perspective. To make the most of this type of flexible work arrangement, organizations need to understand the factors that shape its effectiveness, while maintaining realistic expectations about the potential benefits.

A paper recently published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest summarizes a variety of research studies on telecommuting. One key theme emerging from the studies is the need for those telecommuting to strike the right balance in terms of the time spent working at the office versus the time spent working at home.

Too much time out of the office can be socially isolating and detrimental to relationships with co-workers.

Based on their review of diverse research studies, the authors of the paper — Tammy Allen, Timothy Golden and Kristen M. Shockley — note telecommuting is positively associated with job satisfaction at lower levels of telecommuting.

But the gains in job satisfaction plateau at higher levels of telecommuting, at around 15.1 hours per week.

“The explanation for this curvilinear effect may lie in the social and professional isolation that telecommuters face when telecommuting frequently,” note the authors. “This lack of social interaction may offset any gains in job satisfaction afforded by other benefits associated with telecommuting.”

In addition, other considerations affect the extent to which telecommuting opportunities translate into higher levels of job satisfaction, including:

  • the amount of technical and human resource support provided by the organization
  • the manager’s trust in the teleworker
  • the amount of telework training others in the workplace have received
  • having minimal distractions from family members during work time.

It’s important to be mindful of the potential trade-offs that can arise through telecommuting arrangements. Of note, the authors found telecommuting was associated with many benefits, including increased job satisfaction, organizational commitment and job performance as well as lower levels of work stress and exhaustion.

But, on the flip side, people spending significant amounts of time telecommuting face social isolation and reduced levels of knowledge-sharing with colleagues.

The authors cite the results of one study that included an online poll of 11,383 workers in 24 countries. The findings showed 62 per cent of respondents felt telecommuting was socially isolating, while 50 per cent feared telecommuting could harm their chances of a promotion.

In terms of the impact on relationships with co-workers, the authors cite a study that found low-intensity telecommuting activities did not harm co-worker relationships, but higher levels of telecommuting were found to be detrimental.

With respect to career implications, the authors noted one seven-year study which found that women who used telecommuting more frequently had lower wage growth. The effect was strongest among women in professional or managerial jobs and those who had remained with the same employer over the study period.

Ultimately, organizations can expect the demand for telecommuting opportunities to continue growing. The key to ensuring these arrangements work is to give consideration to how, when and how often employees work from home and to ensure the right training and support is in place to ensure any potential impediments to communication or performance are identified and addressed.

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