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Work Over the Wire: Leading Edge Consortium Speaker Discusses Implications and Opportunities of Telecommuting


by Stephany Schings Below, Communications Manager

Although telecommuting has become increasingly commonplace as a form of virtual work, researchers and organizations know relatively little about how to optimize this work practice for maximum effectiveness, explains SIOP Member Timothy Golden.
In 2010, 26.2 million U.S. employees teleworked at least some of the time, representing nearly 20% of the U.S. adult working population, according to findings released in Telework 2011: A Special Report From WorldatWork. Aon Consulting’s 2009 Benefits and Talent Survey found that 97% of the respondents reported their organizations either planned to increase virtual work and telework options or to keep them at the same level, and the Telework Research Network, a consulting and research organization that specializes in making the business case for workplace flexibility, has reported that 45% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least part-time telework, according to a June 2011 report.
“It’s a work practice that’s going to continue to expand as more technology comes on board that helps people interact as though they were in the office,” Golden explained.  “However, there are a range of additional complexities which need to be considered and dealt with effectively if telecommuting is to continue its rapid growth.”
Golden, associate professor of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), will discuss the current research on telecommuting and how to manage it for success during his presentation “Telecommuting: How Do We Navigate the Path to Effectiveness?” at SIOP’s 2011 Leading Edge Consortium (LEC). This year’s LEC, focusing on the topic of “The Virtual Workforce: Designing, Leading, and Optimizing,” will take place October 14-15 at the Hilton Seelbach in Louisville, Kentucky. For a complete agenda, presentation abstracts, presenter bios, CE, and hotel information, visit www.siop.org/lec.

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There are a range of reasons organizations adopt telecommuting programs, Golden said.
“Many people desire greater flexibility in terms of how they work, and certainly telecommuting affords that,” he said. “It provides employees greater flexibility in how they work and also lets them achieve a greater balance in their work and home life.”
It can also be a good option for those who are not able to make it to the office for geographic reasons, due to either an urban or rural setting.
"Clearly in some urban areas where traffic delays and traffic congestion are a major issue, there is some commuting time that is saved by not going into the office every day,” Golden added. “Where virtual work affords the opportunity to not have to work face-to-face, it can be very convenient when organizations know how to manage it well.”
During his presentation, Golden plans to provide attendees an overview of current research on telecommuting, discussing ways to help improve telecommuting’s success. A range of perspectives will be integrated to provide audience members a holistic view of the considerations needed to effectively implement telecommuting programs. 

“We know that telecommuting is an expanding form of virtual work, and that it is continuing to be adopted not only in the United States but worldwide. We know it can be an effective alternative to working exclusively in the corporate-provided office ,” Golden said. “But at the same time, we also know there are aspects of telecommuting that both employers and employees need to be aware of in order to make it as successful as it can be. It adds greater complexity to how we work and the things we need to take into account in order to be effective.”

Golden said there tend to be opinions on either side over whether or not telecommuting can improve an employee’s effectives. There are two prevailing thoughts on this, he explained.

“First, there is the thought that people are more productive when they work away from the office because they are detached from the immediacy of some non-scheduled interruptions, such as idle office chit chat and spurious requests," he said. "However, there is also the perspective that because telecommuters are situated in the social fabric of the home, they may be drawn to other demands in that environment, such as household duties. While both of these perspectives have merit, it is up to employees and managers to enact well thought-out procedures and protocols to balance these possibilities.”

One thing organizations and employees need to focus on, he said, is determining the extent of telecommuting that should occur.

It is probably not an all-or-nothing preposition in determining how much employees should telecommute, Golden added.  Spending more hours telecommuting are not always better, he explained. There have been some findings that show a curvilinear aspect to telecommuting satisfaction.

“At high levels of telecommuting, you don’t receive quite as much return in terms of job satisfaction as you would with lower levels of telecommuting,” he said. “It may be that being away from the social fabric of the office space plays a role in people feeling fully connected with those who they work with.”
Professional isolation is a problem some organizations and employees encounter when utilizing telecommuting, Golden said.
“In terms of people who feel not just socially but professionally isolated from others with whom they work, we know that professional isolation has been associated with poorer job performance,” he explained. “People who work away from their managers and colleagues may not feel as connected to them.”
Golden said there are several aspects of telework to consider when remedying this problem.
“What workers need to think about is the time they spend telecommuting, the level of access they have to their workplace and colleagues, and the options they have for staying connected,” he explained.
Telecommuting is not just about the employee’s perspective, however. The range of perspectives considered should include not only the individual who telecommutes, Golden explained, but also the perspective of coworkers and the manager of those who use who telecommute. For example, Golden said organizations need to consider any impacts to telecommuters’ colleagues, and provide training programs to help iron out any issues that could arise.

“There is some research that myself and others have done that looks at how the telecommuter is viewed when they are away from the office,” he said. “Although this research is in its early stages, there is some indication that as a greater proportion of the work unit telecommutes, those left in the office tend to be less satisfied with their telecommuting colleagues.”

There are a number of reasons this may occur, Golden added.
“It may be that those who are left in the office have to shoulder additional responsibility because the teleworkers are not able to handle the immediate requests that are brought to them,” he explained. “The person who is in the office may get handed those types of tasks. It also may be that telecommuters are perceived as benefiting from the provisions of flexibility while the non-telecommuter is not receiving that benefit.”
Organizations may also need to consider managers’ opinions as well. Whether workers are physically in the office, where the manager can see them, or if they are in an offsite location, the manager still has managerial oversight and discretion in determining the work assignments and tasks given to the employee that best meets the needs and objectives of the organization. Golden explained.
LEC attendees are expected to leave Golden’s presentation with knowledge of key aspects in the design of successful telecommuting programs, considerations research shows alter the success of telecommuting, and the range of issues that need to be encompassed to effectively implement telecommuting.
Golden said he hopes attendees gain a better understanding of the research on telecommuting and that they better understand the implications of the practice for their employees.

“As a researcher, my role is to conduct and report research on workplace practices like telecommuting,” he added. “It’s about putting the research out there and helping employees and managers decide what works best in their specific contexts.”

Timothy Golden is an associate professor of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). His research examines the implications of the rapidly expanding availability and use of technology within business organizations. Prior to his current role, he held several positions in the aerospace, IT, and medical industries, including program management, systems engineering, and space flight engineering working with NASA’s space shuttle program. He previously served as a research advisor to the International Telework Association and Council and as a director of the Eastern Academy of Management. Golden holds a PhD in Management and a MA in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Connecticut, a MA in Psychology from Brandeis University, a MS in Engineering Management from The Gordon Institute of Tufts University, and a MS in Aerospace Engineering from Northrop University.