Thursday, March 20, 2008

Experts Agree: Telecommuting Is Good

Stella has complained in the past about some academic studies of telecommuting practice that were widely quoted and narrowly focused. Well, I'm pleased to report that I just finished reading a meta-analysis of a lot of telecommuting studies of more than 12,000 employees at various companies that presented some interesting findings that support your best and worst assumptions about telecommuting. The paper, "The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences" appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology 2007, Vol. 92, No. 6 (November 2007).

Here's how it worked: The authors, Ravi S. Gajendran and David A. Harrison of Penn State, initially examined 212 studies and identified 46 peer reviewed papers and unpublished dissertations that met their criteria for inclusion. To be considered, the study had to test one of the twelve hypotheses they were considering and had to have measured a statistically significant effect on one of the twelve. They specifically excluded studies that just looked at people doing extra work at home in their spare time and those studies that included freelancers and contractors working off-site. They compiled all the data from all these studies to see if there was a measurable concordance amongst them, and they found out some interesting stuff.

Do telecommuters perceive a greater degree of autonomy? The studies that looked at this factor agree that, indeed, this is measurably the case. Does telecommuting reduce work-family conflict? Yes, yes it does. Are telecommuters more satisfied with their jobs? Yes. Do telecommuters perform their jobs better? Well, if you ask employees, their assessment is neutral, but if you ask their managers, the answer is yes. Does telecommuting prevent turnover? Yes. Does telecommuting reduce employee stress? Yes. Do telecommuters perceive diminished career prospects? No.

I don't think that anyone who actually telecommutes would be surprised by any of these results, but it's super-great to have a rigorous analysis across lots of strong studies to support what we all suspect.

However, there were a couple of surprises about the impact of telecommuting on relationships in the workplace. The authors looked at two hypotheses relating to this: Does the employee-manager relationship suffer under a telecommuting arrangement, and do employee-coworker relationships stink when people are in slippers? They also considered whether what they call "telecommuting intensity" has an effect on these factors (extreme telecommuting was 50% or more of the work time in a non-office setting, so more than 2.5 days a week).

On the employee-manager relationship, they found that telecommuting did NOT have a negative effect. In fact, it was correlated with a positive effect on this relationship. There are probably a number of reasons why this is so: generally the most driven and conscientious people are allowed to telecommute, telecommuting programs (if all is going right) have lots of reporting built in so managers may be more informed about what their telecommuters are up to and thus feel better about the whole thing. Moreover, telecommuting intensity did not worsen the relationship -- it had no effect on this point.

For relationships among coworkers the impact of telecommuting was neutral -- so in this kind of analysis, it means that some studies measured a negative effect and some measured a positive effect, and it all kind of balanced out in the end. But don't get excited yet. The authors reported that studies found the more you telecommute, the more negative impact there is on coworker relationships.

So what does it all mean? That research over the past 25-30 years generally supports all the good things that we all suspect about telecommuting. But now it's scientists saying it, not just people who want to wear slippers.

I think it also points clearly to a critical area for better practice: maintaining relationships with co-workers. Stella's going to give that one some thought to see if she might can come up with some strategies to experiment with.

DISCLAIMER: Stella is not a social scientist, nor has she ever played one on TV. She's just a gal who knows how to use indexes and photocopy articles from scientific journals at her local academic library. Honestly, when they got to the actual mathematical expression of the statistical findings my eyes glazed over, but they were kind enough to put it in words. Words I get.

No comments: