Closing the Scientist-Practitioner Gap: The Good, The Bad, And the Unknown About Telecommuting

Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1524 –1541.

In a 2007 meta-analysis of 46 studies consisting of almost 13,000 remote employees, Gajendran and Harrison found telecommuting to have a moderate but beneficial relationship with key outcomes of the employee experience.

COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the work environment for many organizations. Following recent social distancing policies, a reported 34% of the U.S. workforce shifted from commuting to an office to working from home (Brynjolfsson, et. al, 2020). With the country beginning to lift these policies, many employees are expected to return to the office, but for others, this might not be the case. Many organizations, such as Twitter and Square, are giving their employees the option to work from home indefinitely (Brownlee, 2020).

What Does “telecommuting” mean?

Telecommuting is the performance of work activities outside of the primary or central workplace. It is NOT contractual or freelance work done by self-employed individuals or when employees work after hours at home.

What does a transition to a telecommuting workforce mean for an organization and how will this change impact the employee?

Working from home leaves organizations with some trade-offs. In a recent survey conducted by YouGov in partnership with USA TODAY and LinkedIn, working from home was reported by 54% of professionals ages 18-74 to be a more productive experience, but 51% report increased loneliness during work (Schrotenboer, 2020). To identify these trade-offs in detail, below is a summary of Gajendran and Harrison’s review of “The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown of Telecommuting.” We found that with the right considerations, the shift to telecommuting can be a positive experience for both the organization and the employee.

What are the potential consequences of part and full-time telecommuting?

  • Telecommuting tends to increase job satisfaction and reduce turnover intentions.
  • Working from home can produce less role stress. (i.e. the stress from aspects of a particular role or between the different roles we assume) for employees.
  • Supervisors tend to rate telecommuters more favorably and have better relationships.
  • Telecommuting is associated with higher records of past performance data.
  • Perceived career prospects are unlikely to be adversely impacted by telecommuting.

How does telecommuting lead to these outcomes?

Three conceptual themes emerge as to what mechanisms lead to the consequences of telecommuting:

  1. Psychological control: The perceived autonomy to choose how/when work is performed.
  2. The work-family interface: The interaction of one’s work and family life domains where each area can either positively or negatively impact the other.
  3. Relationship impoverishment: The reduced face-to-face interactions and frequency and richness of communication that is possible.

Autonomy had the most support as an explanation for why telecommuters experience an increase of job satisfaction and supervisor favorability and reduction in turnover intent and role stress. In comparison, work-family conflict and relationship quality only had a modest association and mainly came into play for full-time telecommuters.

What are the differences in consequences between part-and full-time telecommuters?

  • Full-time telecommuters (those working 50% or more out of office) experience less work-family conflict but coworker relationships tend to be negatively impacted.
  • Full-time telecommuters experience less stress than part-timers.
  • Both part and full-time telecommuters have similar levels of autonomy which suggests that giving freedom to work from home can incur the benefits produced by increased autonomy.

Does gender or experience with telecommuting change the outcomes?

  • Female employees tend to experience a greater increase in performance ratings and perceived career prospects.
  • Employees who have more experience with telecommuting may experience greater benefits found with work-family conflict and role stress suggesting a learning curve associated with telecommuting.

What does all this mean for you as an organization and your employees?

  • Maximize the benefits: If your workers are telecommuting, maximize its benefits by allowing telecommuters to spend the majority of their time working remotely. Working 3 or more days from home allows employees to get settled into a balanced routine.
  • Be aware of decreased coworker relationships: As employees increase their time working remotely, management should be aware and work to strengthen and encourage good coworker relationship.
  • Find ways to monitor without removing autonomy: Use trust-based strategies, such as a written agreement, rather than electronic monitoring techniques which can reduce perceived autonomy.
  • Allow employees time to gain experience telecommuting: As with any learning curve, it takes time to see results. When switching employees to a telecommuting schedule, allow them time to adjust and acclimate to the new working conditions.

Article by Juliette Lloyd, Brooke Ackerman & Brandon Jordan

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