Telecommuting… Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

Personal and professional issues for those planning to ride the telecommuting wave.

1999 Volume 2 Issue 4

Consider the pros and cons of this fast-growing phenomenon.

If you decide to try telecommuting, you clearly have a great deal of company. A recent survey suggested that some 11 million people work from home at least several days per month. Most forecasts show that number rising rapidly in the next few years. The powerful forces driving the telecommuting phenomenon are not likely to be stopped. What should you be aware of if you decide to ride the telecommuting wave?

What is Telecommuting?

Telecommuting is the act of working away from the conventional workplace while maintaining communication with it via computer-based technology. Here we are addressing people who perform the same type of activities at an alternative work site as they would perform in their traditional office. Three types of telecommuting locations are most common: satellite work centers, neighborhood work centers, and home offices. The first two are similar except that the neighborhood centers house employees from more than one organization while satellite centers only include employees from one company. Here we are highlighting the most common form of telecommuting – working at home.

Is Telecommuting for Your Company?

On the positive side, telecommuting has the potential to benefit employers, employees, and society. Employee benefits may include a reduction in commuting time and stress, increased control over the work schedule, fewer office distractions, and reduced work-family conflicts.

Employers can cut office space costs and effectively address space constraints. Not long after it implemented a large-scale telecommuting program, IBM reportedly saved $75 million in annual real estate expenses. Also, as employees experience less stress due to commuting, organizations should see employee productivity increase.

Telecommuting also may offer organizations access to a wider talent pool. By allowing employees to work from home, organizations can attract people with valued skills who decline to relocate or who are unwilling to commute a long distance on a regular basis. Telecommuting also enables organizations to hire mobility impaired workers and may even help keep them in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Furthermore, telecommuting can help organizations comply with ordinances found in some metropolitan areas that mandate a reduction in the number of vehicles driving to the office site.

For society-at-large, telecommuting helps relieve air pollution and traffic congestion – results that are undisputedly positive. Society benefits further to the extent that telecommuting reduces work-family conflicts and gives parents more time with their children.

But telecommuting is not without its disadvantages. For employees, the advantage of flexibility may disappear as the boundary between work and home becomes less distinct. Employees may find their work day extending beyond traditional work hours. One telecommuter’s spouse put a lock on his wife’s home office as a means of managing her workaholic tendencies.

While the telecommuter can enjoy more quality time with family and the ability to take breaks with one’s children, telecommuting is not a substitute for childcare. Telecommuters are typically expected to maintain traditional work hours at their home and to be available at any point during that time.

A company’s costs may actually increase if the firm pays for home office equipment and still maintains an office at the worksite for an employee comes in only occasionally. In that situation, there may actually be some increased costs and, if productivity declines, an organization may suffer further.

How Will Telecommuting Impact Work Relationships?

Little academic research has examined the effect telecommuting may have on the nature of the relationship between the individual employee and the organization. And yet it seems likely that telecommuting will change the very way we define these relationships. At the most basic level is the question of whether the organization form that emerges as a result of alternative work strategies, such as telecommuting, will liberate or oppress – the same question asked about bureaucracies nearly a century ago.

More specifically, we ask, how will your relationship with your manager or employee change if telecommuting is introduced into your company? Often, managers are reluctant to embrace telecommuting because they worry they’ll lose control when employees work off-site. They question, “How do I know people are working if I can’t see them?” The solution for many managers may be to use output measures and/or assign telecommuters projects with easily measured deliverables. Output controls are based on the quality and timeliness of completed work rather than on observation. They can provide managers with a legitimate measure of productivity and still offer employees discretion over the means used to achieve these goals. Other strategies to increase a manager’s control over off-site and out-of-sight employees include formalizing job requirements, performance standards, and communication.

While managers worry about giving up control, employees are concerned with isolation – both social and professional. In this article we don’t deal with social isolation – the isolation from work social circles; yet, it remains a valid concern. Instead, here we highlight professional isolation. Employees fear that being “out of sight” means being “out of mind” for promotions and other organizational rewards, and that even asking to telecommute may be taken as a sign of lowered commitment to the organization.

If I Telecommute, Will I Be Treated Fairly?

One useful lens for understanding employees’ professional isolation concerns is that of organizational justice. Like other employees, telecommuters want to ensure that…

  1. They receive the organizational outcomes (pay, promotions, benefits) they believe they deserve (distributive justice).
  2. They have a voice in the process by which these outcomes are determined (procedural justice).
  3. Managers treat them with respect, consideration, and neutrality (interactional justice).

Since telecommuters are physically absent from the traditional office at least part-time, this absence may affect their chances of being treated fairly – or at least affect their perception of fairness. From a managerial point of view, perceptions of organizational justice are critical because they have been linked to desirable work-related attitudes and employee performance.

Telecommuting may impact organizational justice perceptions in a number of ways. Distributive justice perceptions may be affected in at least two ways. On the one hand, telecommuters can view the option to telecommute as a reward in itself – increasing perceptions of organizational justice. On the other hand, telecommuters may believe that they will miss opportunities for promotions or good assignments because they are physically away from the office. If the latter perception prevails, telecommuters may feel that the rewards they receive do not adequately reflect their efforts.

Where distributive justice focuses on outcomes received, procedural justice diagnoses the process by which these outcomes are distributed: Is the process fair? Does it ensure that I will receive the outcomes I believe I deserve? Was my input requested and valued? Evidence suggests that if employees believe that organizational procedures are fair, they’re more likely to be satisfied and support the company’s goals even if they’re not happy with the outcomes they receive. When rules are standardized, formalized, and applied consistently, perceptions of bias diminish.

As a rule, employees make judgements about procedural fairness based upon their observation of how organizational policies and procedures are actually put into practice. Telecommuters, by virtue of their absence from the workplace, have fewer opportunities to observe fair procedures. A manager’s use of outcome-based indicators to evaluate performance – rather than a subjective evaluation – along with formal job descriptions and performance standards, and formal communication patterns may help alleviate these procedural justice concerns.

People want their managers and co-workers to treat them with respect, consideration, and trust. Telecommuting may negatively influence employees’ perceptions of interactional justice because they may experience fewer (face-to-face) opportunities for managers and co-workers to demonstrate fair interpersonal treatment. Telecommuters may fear that their absence is a disadvantage when it comes to building the relationships necessary to ensure that their interests are adequately considered.

What Evidence Exists About How Telecommuters Believe They Are Treated?

To further understand how telecommuters believe they are treated, we surveyed employees in 11 organizations. Each organization was a member or employed members of a national telecommuting trade association. We asked each organizational contact to identify telecommuters and then to match these telecommuters, by job type and level, with an equal number of non-telecommuting employees from the same organization. Our contacts identified 496 employees. We sent each employee a survey and received usable responses from 191 respondents, or 38.5% of the sample. We also interviewed numerous telecommuters and their supervisors to garner additional background information.

Distributive Justice

The survey results did not support our expectation that employees viewed telecommuting itself to be a reward, although from the interviews we found that some telecommuters did share this view. Moreover, in general, employees did not believe that telecommuting diminished their chances to receive the organizational rewards they felt they deserved. In fact, telecommuters did not differ significantly from non-telecommuting employees in this regard. Obviously more than just telecommuting is at work in determining these perceptions.

Procedural Justice – or “Thank Your E-mail” Telecommuters generally believed the processes that led to evaluative decisions were just. Key here was e-mail use. Managers can use e-mail to disseminate information quickly and consistently to everyone, including telecommuters. If many people receive the same e-mail message at the same time, it can increase a sense of fairness or justice among all. We found that e-mail use significantly and positively related to procedural justice, although the effect was not large. But related to this, we found that informal communication may increase a supervisor’s discretionary interaction with his or her employees, allowing the supervisor to more effectively deliver good and bad news about decisions and processes. These informal communication channels can enhance trust and relationship-building. E-mail allows this kind of contact at a distance, encouraging such contact beyond in-office, face-to-face conversation.

Interactional Justice

What we had not anticipated was how much e-mail also helped to maintain a sense of interactional justice – the sense that supervisors treat telecommuters with respect, consideration, and neutrality. To further investigate this finding, we divided the sample into three groups: Those who worked only onsite (non-telecommuters), those who telecommuted less than 30% in an average week (moderate telecommuters), and those who telecommuted more than 30% in an average week (active telecommuters).

We found that active telecommuters were more satisfied with their supervisors than either non-telecommuters or moderate telecommuters. It may be that active telecommuters believe supervisors consider their needs for dealing with work-family conflicts and/or commuting stress. Or it may be, as our results reveal, that active telecommuters spend more time communicating by e-mail with their supervisors about personal, non-work-related topics. In short, these increased amounts of personal conversation may enhance interactional justice perceptions, and it doesn’t seem to matter if this personal conversation occurs primarily by e-mail. Even more interesting, the more telecommuters believe their supervisors act fairly towards them, the less these same telecommuters may worry about fair processes and outcomes.

Finally, we also found that, overall, employees perceived higher levels of distributive, procedural, and interactional justice when they believed their supervisors related to them casually and informally – a good reason to build more interpersonally rich relationships with your employees.

What Does This Mean to You?

In this brave new world of the Internet, intranets, e-mail, teleconferencing, and other forms of electronic communication – all which make telecommuting feasible and increasingly prominent – there remain some very human considerations. People must perceive that the organization will treat them fairly when they are off-site and out-of-sight, and supervisors must believe that employees will remain productive. The good news from our preliminary investigation is that telecommuters do believe they are treated fairly and with respect, and have input and voice in the processes that affect them.

About the Author(s)

Terri D. Egan, PhD, is Academic Director of Pepperdine University's top ranked Masters of Science in Organization Development (MSOD) program and Associate Professor of Applied Behavioral Sciences at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. She has taught graduate and executive courses in personal development, leadership, team effectiveness, organizational change and development, creativity and innovation and international organization development. Her award winning research has been published in a number of journals including Administrative Science Quarterly, Organization Science, Journal of Public Administration, The Information Society, Human Relations, and the Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner. Dr. Egan’s current research and practice focuses on integrating neuroscience discoveries into organization and leadership development theory and practice. She is the co-founder of Lahl and Egan, LLC (www.lahlandegan.com). She holds an interdisciplinary degree in Social Sciences, an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior all from the University of California, Irvine and is a guild certified practitioner of the Feldenkrais® Method of Somatic Education.

Nancy Kurland, PhD

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