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Too many telecommuters make the office a lonely place

A study looks at the effects of telecommuting on the workers who remain in the office.

Too many telecommuters make the office a lonely place

It’s easy to be pro-telecommuting. After all, the option to work from home allows workers to spend more time with their families and gives them the freedom to create their own schedules. In general, this office perk serves as a morale boost for the workforce. It benefits employers too, helping them save money on in-office real estate and freeing them to hire desirable job candidates who might be unable to relocate.

Up until now, though, most criticism of telecommuting has focused on the employees who are out of the office, with concerns typically revolving around their efficiency without direct supervision or the questionable mental health of working in pajama-clad social isolation. But what about its effect on the employees who don’t telecommute—the ones, in other words, who are left behind?

A study published last September in The Academy of Management Discoveries journal conducted by Professor Kevin W. Rockmann, an associate management professor at George Mason University, and Michael G. Pratt, a management professor at Boston College, focuses on the people who remain in the office while their peers work from home.

Rockmann and Pratt surveyed the employees of a large U.S. tech company in two parts. For part one, the professors interviewed 29 employees in a California division who provide mostly IT services, nine who worked off-site one day a week or less, 10 who worked off-site between two and four days a week and 10 who worked remotely full time. For part two, they administered surveys to 242 employees within the California division and 386 surveys to randomly selected workers across North America in a variety of company sectors..

Surprisingly, those who spent the largest amount of time working off-site said that they did so not out of preference, but because everyone else was doing it. “Few people, if any, from my team work in the office much, so I do not benefit from coming in,” was the most well represented answer among respondents who spent an average of 72% of their time telecommuting.

But what about the people who are coming into the office? “It’s not as friendly to come to work now,” said one employee quoted in the study. “You come in and find out everyone else is working at home, and you are the only one in the office then,” said another.

Some of those surveyed also missed the dynamic discussions that happened in office hallways and other communal spaces, while others lamented the loss of the ability to spontaneously brainstorm with supervisors and co-workers sitting next to them. These reasons were similar to the ones Marissa Mayer cited for her Yahoo! telecommuting ban, in a company memo that read, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings... We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

In an interview with The New York Times about the study, Rockmann stressed that the results were not meant to be a condemnation of telecommuting, but merely a call to consider the effects of working from home on the entire office—not only the telecommuters. Other studies have indicated that telecommuting deserves a more nuanced analysis, as opposed to an all-or-nothing approach. The option to telecommute contributes to a healthy work-life balance, but when people spend the majority of their time working off site, the result could be lower engagement and office disconnection.

"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.”

Or, as one employee put it: “I find I get lonely, you know. You can only yak at your cats for so long.”

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