How telework breeds loneliness for the office-dwellers left behind

Telework is great for those who need it and can capitalize on distributed work. But a new study shows the morale of those left behind can suffer as telework programs expand -- and can spark an office exodus rooted in loneliness, not necessity.

Shutterstock image (by bikeriderlondon): businessman, isolated, workforce.

(bikeriderlondon / Shutterstock)

For the 100-mile commuter, the harried single parent and others, flexible telework is the best thing ever.

But what about the people who get left behind at the office? According to a recent paper, they get lonely.

"Contagious Off-Site Work and the Lonely Office: The Unintended Consequences of Distributed Work."  by Michael Pratt, of Boston College and Kevin Rockmann, of George Mason University delves into the plight of the teleworker's abandoned colleagues. Their paper was published in the fall issue of the Academy of Management Discoveries journal.

"[P]eople still appear to desire something like a traditional office," the authors reported. "In our study even people who worked largely off-site still missed the social and work benefits of the old office."

In fact, it turned out that many people currently teleworking may be doing so only because their offices have been deserted.

In a survey of more than 600 employees at a Fortune 100 company, the authors asked each employee why they chose to telework, and how often they do it. (With a wide-open telework policy, the company's employees could basically choose where they work every day.)

While many employees gave answers about work-life balance and efficiency, it was the employees who felt disconnected because of the prevalence of telework who wound up spending the most time off-site. Employees who agreed with the statement, "Few people, if any, from my team work in the office much, so I do not benefit from coming in," averaged 72 percent of their work time out of the office.  For employees who did not feel that description applied to them, the average was 27 percent.

Essentially, the authors noted, the answers suggest that some employees are fleeing their offices not because of telework's benefits, but just because the offices have emptied.

In a smaller, in-depth survey of 29 employees at the company, the authors found a number of bummed-out respondents.

"[Being] remote makes it hard to have the spontaneous dynamic interactive discussions in the hallway," one manager said. "Because people are spread out and working from home, we don't have a sense of team."

"[Y]ou used to have, you know, established friendships and stuff at work that were a lot more close," another employee said. "And now it's just come to work, do your work and leave…it's not as friendly to come to work now."

The flip side: management, and some Skype

Despite the potential risks, there are both financial and HR upsides to telework -- and govvies are bullish on the practice, so long as it's effectively managed.

Cheryl Cook, former USDA CIO and current Chief Innovation Officer for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, recalled the financial boon for the Forest Service when it went from three D.C.-area office buildings down to one thanks to telework. When Cook served as Pennsylvania director of the USDA's Rural Development Mission Area, that organization was able to shrink from 42 offices to 12, a process that saved money even as it ensured USDA officers were spread more evenly across the state by staying in their local zones.

She also noted the personal benefits.

Cook faced a 220-mile round trip commute between D.C. and southeastern Pennsylvania when she worked at USDA headquarters. Teleworking one day every two weeks was a godsend for a woman who barely had time to sleep.

"It's tempting to say nothing can replace in-person collaboration," Cook said, "but the truth is the additional sleep on days that I teleworked made me a clearer thinker and a better collaborator with my staff, who were spread out all over the country and for the most part only knew me from the end of an email string anyway."

So how can telework be effectively managed?

The General Services Administration's 18F dedicated a blog post earlier this month to the subject. The 18F prescription: "over-communicate" on tools like GitHub, Slack and old-fashioned email, have face-to-face video chat meetings at least once a week and collaborate as often and extensively as possible.

NASA Chief Human Capital Officer Lauren Leo, meanwhile, pointed to clear performance expectations and managerial trust as the keys to effective telework. (Though she noted that NASA is nowhere near the ghost town scenario of Pratt and Rockmann's study, with only 2 percent of NASA employees telecommuting more than three days a week.)

Cook said the same principles that should guide a traditional organization can hold a teleworking office together: accountability, engagement and a share sense of purpose.

But if the paper is to be believed, telework puts a strain on morale --  something managers must watch. It can also fog the institutional memory of an organization.

"[F]ormal training often is sacrificed when budgets get tight, leaving newer employees more dependent than ever on more experienced co-workers for advice and informal training as issues arise," Cook noted. "If those more seasoned employees are regularly not in the office several days per week, that window of opportunity closes a little."

"Telecommuting in a vacuum does have this life drain on people," Leo said. Video chat sessions can help, she added, but, "in our experience, they won't ever replace the face-to-face connection."

For the study authors, their findings are an invitation for further consideration.

"At the very least, off-site work is not the win-win situation it's widely considered to be," concluded Pratt.

The authors added, "If the office is going to become a collection of employees not working together, it essentially becomes no different than a coffee shop (though perhaps with better Internet and worse coffee)." 

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