Telecommuting may be good for work-life balance and the environment, but it could come with a hidden downside, the results of a new study by researchers at George Mason University and Boston College suggest.
Professors Kevin Rockmann and Michael Pratt studied how a flexible work program, where employees were allowed to work remotely at their discretion, affected the office culture at an unnamed Fortune 100 technology firm in Silicon Valley. They found that people who preferred to work in the office often ended up feeling lonely and isolated as more of their colleagues started working from home.
“[Y]ou used to have, you know, established friendships and stuff at work that were a lot more close. You’d go out after work, things like that. Go to lunch more often with them. And now it’s just come to work, do your work, and leave,” said one employee the researchers interviewed. “It’s not as friendly to come to work now.”
Workers also reported that there was less conversation and collaboration when they were in the office, in part because there simply weren’t many people there.
“I don’t really have a lot of team kind of interactions even when I am in the office,” another employee said.
In addition to isolating those workers left in the office, remote work seemed to be “contagious,” Rockmann and Pratt wrote in their paper, which was published in Academy of Management Discoveries. After a critical mass of people stopped coming into the office on a regular basis, other workers would switch to remote work too, even if their preference was for a more traditional work environment.
“[O]nce a certain number of individuals work off-site, everyone is isolated,” they wrote. “Some workers who would normally work onsite decided to work offsite rather than face an empty (of relevant people) office.”
The frequency of telecommuting has increased significantly in the past two decades. In 2015, 37% of U.S. workers surveyed by Gallup said they sometimes worked remotely, up from 9% in 1995 (though some of those people are working from home on evenings and weekends in addition to heading to the office during regular business hours). Work-from-home advocates point to increased productivity, better morale, reduced carbon footprints, and lower costs for employers as benefits of a distributed workforce.
Yet companies that implement a flexible work policy without thinking through the broader effects on their business and employees could end up regretting the decision. (Yahoo! famously curtailed its telecommuting policy in 2013, citing negative effects on communication and collaboration.) Nonetheless, many companies lack clear guidelines around flex work. While 80% of businesses surveyed by FlexJobs and WorldatWork say they offer flexible work arrangements, only 37% had a formal written policy regarding the practice.
An ad hoc approach to telecommuting could be behind the problems at the company studied by researchers, said Brie Reynolds, the director of online content at FlexJobs, who noted the limited scope of the study means its findings “aren’t necessarily applicable to most or all companies that allow telecommuting.”
“The company in the study didn’t seem to have a plan in place for how to test their new arrangement to measure its effects on workers, how to keep in-office and at-home workers in regular contact with each other, and how to really translate their company’s culture to a telecommuting environment,” she told The Cheat Sheet. “That’s really where companies falter when it comes to implementing telecommuting and other flexible work options: A lot of time needs to be spent crafting the right policy for the individual company, testing the program, and learning what employees need and want from it.”
A flexible work policy doesn’t have to turn the office into a lonely place, said Reynolds. Requiring people to come into the office at certain times, such as for meetings or team lunches can make people who crave flexibility happy while also preserving a healthy in-office culture, she noted. Gathering feedback from employees about how a telecommuting program can be improved is also important, as is having clear guidelines and policies for communication.
“Managers need to set the tone for when, where, how, and how often communication is needed to keep the team together,” Reynolds said.
In other words, embracing a flexible work policy isn’t something companies should do lightly, a conclusion echoed by the researchers. “At the very least, off-site work is not the win-win situation it’s widely considered to be,” Pratt said in a statement. “Companies that permit employees to decide where they work should be aware that this practice can take on a life of its own and should make sure they have the means to bring teams together – in person and face-to-face – as often as needed.”