The word “telecommuting” isn’t exactly new. In fact, the first modern analysis of working somewhere beside the office comes from 1985, not withstanding Jack Niles landmark 1976 book that coined the term telecommuting. It’s hard to imagine being productive at home in the mid 80’s—an age of primitive desktop computers and achingly slow access. But in those days, people who were working remotely physically brought work home with them.
Reagan Ramsower’s 200-page volume Telecommuting: The Organizational and Behavioral Effects of Working At Home outlines systems of physically hauling materials back and forth on a recurring schedule, structuring work items to facilitate remote efforts, and coordinating with supervisors to measure progress. Much of this book is about the experience of working at home, and how it impacts the culture of organizations.
An article from the winter 1991 issue of the Journal of Business and Psychology offers An Investigation of Selected Variables Affecting Telecommuting Productivity and Satisfaction. Research conducted by Hartman, Stoner, and Arora demonstrated something puzzling:
The results indicated that as telecommuters spent a higher proportion of their total work time in telecommuting, their perceptions of overall at-home productivity declined. This finding is contrary to expectation.
In other words, the more you work from home, the less productive you feel. But why? According to the study:
At least two possible explanations of this finding may be advanced. First, workers who spend only one or two days a week in telecommuting (therefore three or four days a week at the office) may be more cognizant of the productivity improvements that occur while working at home. Their relative comparisons (between home and office) may be sharpened. Accordingly, they may evaluate telecommuting productivity more positively than those who do not have as sensitive of a comparison base. Second, some of the uniqueness of the telecommuting arrangement may be lost as workers expand their telecommuting time. What was viewed as special (by both workers and managers) when done on a limited basis, may become routine and more mundane when extended over time. Therefore, one may start to take on work that is less amenable to at-home performance as their telecommuting hours increase.
In summary: intense telecommuters feel less productive because their isolation limits their basis for comparison, or because the benefit of telecommuting leads to a sense of incompetence.
The most important finding by Hartman, Stoner and Arora appears in their conclusion:
[This] study revealed no significant relationships between gender, educational attainment, age, occupational classification, nature of the job, and preference for changing the amount of telecommuting work and telecommuting productivity and satisfaction. This does not imply that telecommuting is appropriate for all persons or all jobs. Yet, the findings do suggest that telecommuting decisions should not be confined by these categorizations.
Translating from academic-speak: overall productivity and satisfaction for telecommuting have nothing to do with age, gender, education, job title, job function or how much the employee prefers to work from home. Effectiveness for telecommuting is controlled by other factors beyond these simple criteria.
Finally, an article by Ralph Westfall in the August 2004 issue of Communications of the ACM turned the telecommuting conversation upside down. He subtitles his paper Does Telecommuting Really Increase Productivity? with the warning:
As many companies have learned in the last decade, the reality of telecommuting does not reflect the hype, the expected potential, or the existing literature.
Wait a minute: isn’t telecommuting supposed to be the greatest thing since baked goods were segmented into portable vertical chunks?
Westfall notes that virtually all of the supporting claims regarding telecommuting are anecdotal and that the numbers presented are untenable. Stories of increases of over a 100% in results often appear in the popular press. But, he concludes, if telecommuting were really so effective would we have not adopted it wholesale long ago?
The most telling part of Westfall’s paper may be an aside about the accuracy of measurements:
Another possible explanation of the high[ly biased] subjective estimates is that some telecommuters may exaggerate productivity estimates to justify being away from the office during regular working hours. (The author of the popular “Dilbert” comic strip appears to view telecommuting from this perspective.)
Here is an author who clearly recognizes that some employees actually prefer to be somewhere else beside work. Decades of research have led us toward a profound conclusion: workers like telecommuting because it places them in control.
Thanks to the work of leading experts, we have a simple, almost comical principle. We know the office often prevents us from getting things done. Let’s leave the summary of academic work on this topic to the most famous of scholars (direct link):
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