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Telecommuting Can Make the Office a Lonely Place, a Study Says

06 January 2016

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CreditMichael Waraksa

 

 

Ever since telecommuting became a viable option for a broad spectrum of workers, some companies have offered it as a tempting perk. Why not make workers happier by allowing them to spend more time with their families, avoid long commutes and exert more control over their schedules? Plus, off-site work enables businesses to save money on real estate and hire talented people who live in far-flung locations.

If managers have had doubts about telecommuting, they have centered on whether people working from home will be as productive as they are in the office and if some form of monitoring is necessary, said Kevin W. Rockmann, an associate management professor at George Mason University.

But new research by Professor Rockmann and Michael G. Pratt, a management professor at Boston College, suggests that concerns about off-site work should be turned in an entirely different direction: toward the people who remain in the office. The professors’ work appears in a recent edition of The Academy of Management Discoveries.

In a study of a Fortune 100 company in Silicon Valley that freely allowed off-site work, the researchers found that the employees who chose to continue working in the office ended up feeling lonely and disconnected. Many of these people came into work because they desired social interaction, and yet they found themselves deprived of the convivial lunches, spontaneous hallway interactions and impromptu office conversations that can be so energizing. “The office essentially became this isolated wasteland,” Professor Rockmann said in an interview.

According to his study, the decision to work from home became contagious, extending beyond the people who chose it because they truly wanted or needed the flexibility. In short, more people started working from home because everyone else was doing it. And so the office became even more desolate than it already was. One manager said that “in some ways, teamwork no longer existed” at the company after the more flexible policy was enacted.

It is true that communication technology like email, instant messaging and Skype can make up for a lack of physical connectedness, Professor Rockmann said, and agreeing on a consistent form of communication across a team is especially important. But interacting in the same physical space builds a level of depth and trust that simply is not available with other methods, he said, partly because people are better able to pick up on nonverbal behavior.

Yahoo endured criticism when it curtailed its work-from-home policy in 2013, saying that being physically present in the office was a key element of communication and collaboration. As the research by professors Rockmann and Pratt indicates, the company may have had a point. Yahoo’s experience “shows that we have only begun to scratch the surface of the far-reaching effects of allowing workers to work outside the office,” according to the study.

Professor Rockmann says his study is not meant to be a wholesale condemnation of telecommuting, which, after all, has made a sizable contribution to work-life balance. Rather, it is a call for companies to consider its effect not just on the people who work from home, but on the whole team.

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