Isolated -- And Liking It

Contrary to conventional wisdom, teleworking employees do not feel disconnected from their employers. In fact, efforts to deepen the relationship by increasing communication are counterproductive, one study finds.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
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A recent university study dispels the myth that teleworkers feel disconnected unless they receive frequent communication from their organizations.

In fact, the more organizations talk, email or instant message their teleworkers, the more turned off those teleworkers are, the study finds.

Thus, human resource leaders should establish clear expectations of performance for teleworkers and then train managers to limit their communications to them as long as those expectations are being met.

Kathryn Fonner, assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, and Michael Roloff, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., examined the way the use of various forms of communication -- phone calls, email, instant messaging and face-to-face conversations -- affected teleworkers' feelings of stress due to interruptions, and subsequent feelings of attachment to their organizations.

"The study suggests that people who telework have expectations related to the degree of flexibility and quiet that the remote arrangement is going to provide," Fonner says. "So when teleworkers are in frequent contact with colleagues and experience a lot of interruptions, that's when attachment to their organization diminishes.

"That's important," she says, "because it's related to the extent to which they will go above and beyond for the organization, their satisfaction and commitment to the job, and whether or not they will quit."

The pair's study was published in the June issue of the National Communication Association's Communication Monographs.

These issues are increasingly critical to HR leaders as more and more employees telework.

According to an analysis by The Conference Board of data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in its annual American Community Survey, more than 2 percent of full-time employees worked primarily from home in 2010, nearly double the rate of a decade ago.

In some occupations, such as sales engineers and travel agents, the percentage of teleworkers is higher than 10 percent, and the number of teleworkers in occupations such as record clerks has tripled during the past decade, according to the analysis.

Rebecca Ray, senior vice president of human capital at The Conference Board in New York, says HR leaders need to recognize that "good management is good management," and must adapt to varying situations depending on where employees are based.

"At the end of the day, people want to feel like they're given the tools and support they need to do their job, but that they're not held so tightly that they feel that they're not respected by managers or that their autonomy is impinged upon," Ray says.

"Whether they are supervising people they can see on the office floor or distributed around the world, managers need to assume that they're dealing with professionals and craft policies and procedures to support that view," she says.

"Just because they have the technology to track every move, doesn't mean that's the appropriate use of that technology," Ray says.

Jack Heacock, senior vice president of The Telework Coalition, a Washington-based organization that lobbies in favor of telecommuting, says HR leaders can help ensure teleworkers remain committed to their jobs and their organizations by training supervisors to manage to objectives and specific deliverables.

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And that should be the case for every worker in the organization, he says.

"The boss gives an assignment and unless there is a problem that the teleworker can't meet the deadline, the boss will not call the teleworker and bother them," Heacock says. "Now if the teleworker violates that, then the boss and the teleworker will have to have a discussion about the relationship. But until something negative happens, the boss will stay out of the teleworker's hair."

That style of communication, he says, should be incorporated by HR leaders into a training program for both teleworkers and their managers.

Such a program should also specifically address the communications needs of teleworkers in the organization's corporate communications program, such as in their annual reports and newsletters.

Too much communication is often code for "micro-management," says Gil Gordon, president of Monmouth Junction, N.J.-based Gil Gordon Associates, a telecommuting advisory firm.

HR leaders should make sure managers are trained well enough to understand that the focus should be on productivity and not activity -- "deliverables count more than what workers are doing at any one point in time," Gordon says.

"For example, a manager says to a teleworker, 'I need to have a budget analysis done by 2 p.m. on Friday, and make sure you talk to George in operations and Susan in marketing,' " he says. "Then back away -- it isn't necessary to email the teleworker the next day and ask if they've talked to George yet."

If managers aren't comfortable with this, then perhaps they chose the wrong employee to telework, Gordon says.

In addition, if organizations have multiple employees teleworking on a part-time basis, it's important to stagger their schedules so at least one senior employee is available in the office to answer questions from clients, junior employees or employees from other departments. This will decrease interruptions to teleworkers at home.

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