Teleworking is popular – but beware of the drawbacks
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By Claus Rosenkrantz Hansen
Twenty-four percent of the American workforce works from home and globally the number of individuals using their home as their workplace grows by 11 percent annually.
This trend is spreading because of the numerous advantages of teleworking. Some of the benefits of working from home include greater flexibility in family life and getting a respite from the noise of open-plan offices and other disruptions.
Companies also profit from teleworking. Employees with the option of working from their homes are often more satisfied and consequently more productive. The company also has fewer office space expenses when some projects are accomplished via teleworking.
Yet, according to Assistant Professor Peter Holdt Christensen, a researcher of human behaviour in the workplace, companies should be wary of the extent of telecommuting. This is also the conclusion he draws in his new book Distance i arbejdslivet (Distance in Working Life).
“Something happens in the workplace and with employees when people work from home. Structurally it’s not an issue that people occasionally work from home, but you have to remember that the workplace also involves a social process and that the workplace community plays a significant role in our well-being at work. That’s why the use of teleworking should be done with caution because it can have consequences for both the workplace community and the cohesion of the company,” says Holdt Christensen.
Meeting at the water cooler important for cohesion
Holdt Christensen’s book describes the pros and cons of teleworking based on three concepts: autonomy, relationships and visibility.
Autonomy refers to employees contributing to the determination of their work hours, which can positively affect family life. This fosters motivation because it promotes the individual employee’s feeling of having an influence. But there are also disadvantages. For example if an employee works from home too often, it can lead to a sense of isolation from the workplace community at the company.
“And that interferes with the sense of cohesion in the company, which is important and is best created when employees occasionally meet in each other’s offices, in the hallway or at the water cooler,” explains Holdt Christensen.
The concept of relationships is closely related. On the one hand, working from home can be appropriate for projects that require concentration and as few disruptions from co-workers as possible, but on the other, if an employee is often absent, social relationships can suffer.
“Working from home to avoid interruptions can be great, but people also have a need to build relationships with co-workers and that doesn’t happen when you work from home,” adds Holdt Christensen.
The third term, visibility involves being present and being seen at work. Not being visible can be a detriment to one’s career.
“Research shows that managers connect performance with physical presence. This means that if you work from home there will be a tendency for the manager not to see your work performance. Ultimately this can result in putting people who work from home at a disadvantage in terms of pay and advancement,” states Holdt Christensen.
Companies lack knowledge on the pros and cons of teleworking
Holdt Christensen’s book presents an analysis that synthesises existing research on teleworking. This research has been conducted since the 1970s, when the phenomenon started to be more widely used, as the oil crisis made working from home more attractive economically.
Research has not, however, really found its way to companies – and the purpose of the book is to redress this situation.
“My book provides an accessible, short introduction to what companies must be aware of concerning teleworking, equipping them with research-based knowledge on the pros and cons so they’re able to make more informed decisions on teleworking based on their particular circumstances,” says Holdt Christensen.
Peter Holdt Christensen’s next step is to work with empirical issues. In 2016 a project will be launched in collaboration with other researchers to examine how companies in Denmark use teleworking.
You can order Distance i arbejdslivet at Academic Books (printed version or e-book), or you can make a reservation at CBS Library.
Peter Holdt Christensen is an associate professor at Department of Strategic Management and Globalization at CBS.