When remote working was introduced, it was hailed as a step forward in work-life balance. For many people, it is, enabling them to combine caring responsibilities and work more easily. Organisations saw it as a way to benefit employees as well as cutting costs.
Nortel estimates that they save $100,000 per employee they don’t have to relocate and some studies quote average real estate savings with full-time telework is $10,000/employee/year.
A mixed picture
However, research on the impact of remote working on employees is decidedly mixed. As well as the benefits, academics have identified issues from an increasing sense of isolation, to a fear of being passed over for promotion.
IBM, according to one respondent in a study, stands for ‘I’m By Myself’. People miss the sense of community, and the richness of collaboration.
Work intensification, where employees work harder and longer hours than office-based staff, has been noted as a by-product in numerous studies, even those that also found increases in job satisfaction for employees based at home. This will be exacerbated when working across time zones.
New issues – old solutions?
The issues of virtual teams are well-documented – top of the list comes communication and trust, common themes in the organisational and management literature. The reasoning for communication issues is that if you can’t see the non-verbal cues in the communication, complete information has not been exchanged.
The potential risks with communication may account for findings in the literature about conflict in virtual teams; with less face to face interaction, not only is it more difficult to fix the issues, but they may stay hidden for longer.
And conflict itself may be a different thing. Being mad and frustrated with Fred in a video conference call might be different from being mad and frustrated with Fred when he’s right in front of you.
It’s not clear if this is properly understood by managers, and organisations may be trying to solve a new and different issue with old tools.
As organisations shrink their office space and set up workers to work elsewhere, they may not realise that distance may impact the relationship they have with their employees.
For example, a strong corporate culture may be more difficult to maintain. The development of culture comes primarily through social interaction between employee and other co-workers. This transmits shared beliefs, values and perceptions. Being remote may make it more difficult to learn ‘how things are done around here’.
Corporate culture seems also to place a lot of emphasis on the visible – dress, behavioural norms, symbols. These things are constrained for remote workers, who need to rely instead on the psychological, rather than the physical dimensions of their organisation.
Closely linked to culture is the concept of employee identity. This is associated with numerous organisational benefits such as organisational citizenship, intent to stay and supervisor satisfaction.
However, the level of employee identity, although flexible, is predicted by the extent of contact between the individual and the organisation, and the visibility of organisational membership, usually displayed through logos, building architecture, uniforms, rituals and ceremonies.
It’s easy to see that working remotely impacts the organisation’s ability to continue this connection.
Time for a new approach?
Some of the issues may be improved through training and better thinking. It would be interesting, for example, to see if organisations coach people on how to work remotely, explaining expectations (both employee and employer) and covering time management.
It would be equally interesting to see how many management training courses focus on the difference between leading remote workers and leading those based in the office. Not many, I imagine.
Here are a couple of key differences:
For remote workers, communication is generally all about the project – they miss the coffee-station/corridor/over lunch chats which will flavour their feelings about work and their employer, let alone spark new ideas.
- So, to fulfil that social and informal agenda, you may need to build in more time to communicate
Being apart from the physical organisation may create for remote workers a sense of having limited influence.
- To counter this, ensure communication mechanisms can accommodate the voice of the remote worker, an important element of the employee-employer relationship. Remember – two-way does not automatically mean email!
For good or ill, it seems remote working is here to stay. Interestingly, the maximum benefits are gained when remote working is part time; meta studies indicate that a maximum of three days appears to create most productivity and worker satisfaction.
For those workers who don’t have that choice, it may be that organisations need to work harder at maintaining the connections.
After all, for a virtual worker, the costs of leaving an organisation they no longer see or feel seen by, will be fairly small.
This article was featured in HRZone on April 11 2017