Working from home, or “telecommuting,” is becoming more commonplace and popular among workers as technological advancements allow for it.
But is everyone a fan?
The conventional wisdom is that allowing people to work from home can hurt business. Telecommuters may be less productive, more inclined to quit and perform less well than workers at the office. Employers may be concerned that at-home workers are more easily distracted by family and social obligations and opportunities, perhaps doing less in a day and negatively affecting business results. Critics also maintain that letting employees work from home should be avoided since it damages staff chances for promotion, undermines supervisor-subordinate relationships and increases family conflict. When staff aren’t in the office, they appear to be less loyal and committed as a result. This damages their reputations as promotion-ready and they are sidelined.
Relationships with supervisors are supposed to suffer under these arrangements as well. Managers rely on observing staff to evaluate their performance. When the manager can’t see what staff are doing, distrust could develop, causing supervisors to monitor employees more closely. They may implicitly suspect that the worker is not pulling his or her weight by hiding out at home.
Families could suffer more under telecommuting arrangements since technology reduces boundaries between work and family. People find their loved one constantly working and unavailable, see no downtime for the telecommuter and as a result conflict increases.
Not according to a recent study in The Journal of Applied Psychology, which firmly debunks these claims. Ravi Gajendran and David Harrison at the Department of Management and Organization with Pennsylvania State University, conducted an extensive review of 46 studies on the subject featuring 12,883 employees. Their results show that working from home is good for business and for staff.
The researchers identified seven positive results of working at home:
1. Increased Control.
A key positive aspect of telecommuting is the opportunity for workers to have maximum control over their work and work environment. Staff have control over when they take breaks, what they wear to work and the layout of their office space. They can make individualized décor choices, alter the ventilation to their liking, change the lighting or even include their own music. They get to decide when and how they do their job and schedule their time accordingly. As long as the work gets done, staff are free to choose what they do and when.
2. Increased Work Family Balance.
When staff can decide when they are going to work and what particular tasks they will work on, they are afforded the opportunity to integrate work and family obligations. This means they can make work and family schedules fit together. Staff can plan uninterrupted work time as well as catering to family needs. Some workers find that they have a room set aside for an office and thereby reduce disruptions. Telecommuting reduces time spent in traffic and can ostensibly increase the number of hours telecommuting staff work. Taking time to take a child to a sport or pick up groceries can be scheduled into the day along with work “to-do’s”. Telecommuting reduces the tension that can exist between doing one’s job and meeting family obligations.
3. Improved Supervisor-Staff Relationships.
The researchers found that telecommuting had a positive effect on supervisor-staff relationships. They speculated that the reason for this is that both parties make an extra effort to stay in touch when staff work from home. Supervisors who have less opportunity to see home-based staff, may contact them more and have longer and better quality conversations. Staff may also seek the supervisor out to update him or her regularly. When supervision occurs in the office environment it may be more casual and on a “catch-as-catch-can” basis. Telecommuting may mean supervisor and subordinate see each other less, but the quality of their contact may increase.
4. Reduced Stress.
Not having to rush to work through commuter traffic, spend extra money on lunch and business attire or worry about being late can reduce stress. Coupled with improved supervisor-staff relationships and less tension at home, working from home causes a reduction in common irritants, subtle pressures and concerns that other workers find pervasive.
5. Increased Job Satisfaction.
Workers who have increased control over their work, who can attend to their familial obligations and experience autonomy are more satisfied and less likely to quit their jobs. Being provided with the means to take charge of their own schedule and having choice is key to ensuring that workers are satisfied. Being given the option to work at home also promotes a sense of loyalty to the organization. Staff feel cared about and their concerns taken seriously when they are given the option of alternate work arrangements. Increasing staff satisfaction benefits businesses hoping to attract and retain talent. Job hunters talk to employees and former employees, gleaning important information about the company and its policies. Knowing that a prospective employer is flexible and recognizes the needs of its workers is attractive to prospective employees.
6. Worker Retention.
Staff who are ready to quit their jobs often cite tensions between work and family, lack of employer flexibility and difficult supervisors as reasons for their desire to leave. Some employers introduce flexible work arrangements to induce overwhelmed or stressed workers to stay. By finding a way for an employee to do their job and lower their stress, companies keep valued, experienced people on the payroll. Working from home is attractive to many and being offered that choice, can mean the difference between staying with an employer or looking for another job. People stay at jobs where they feel respected, trusted and allowed to complete tasks in ways that get the job done and suit the individual. Working from home can provide this kind of allure since the trust and autonomy implied by giving an employee the option to telecommute increases commitment to the company.
7. Improved Productivity And Career Prospects.
Contrary to those who oppose work-at-home arrangements, productivity increases in these scenarios. Staff are less distracted and when supervisors examine objectively what actually gets done, they note that at-home workers deliver. The researchers debunked the concern that not being seen in the office was considered career limiting. Participants in the studies they reviewed did not consider their work arrangement a liability and when taken with improved supervisor-staff relations and increased productivity, the at-home work arrangement may help those who wish to advance in their careers.
Gajendran and Harrison report that telecommuting is largely beneficial for companies and workers. But they warn that care needs to be taken to nurture at-home worker relationships with their co-workers. These relationships can suffer the most from the telecommuting work arrangement. Ensuring that employees have time together, some face-to-face meetings or social gatherings is helpful to reduce isolation and encourage co-worker camaraderie.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.