Telecommuting can improve employee performance: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - While telecommuting, most employees perform at least as well as in the office, and some actually do better, according to a new study.

“We have many reasons to expect that telecommuters should work as well or better than others,” said Ravi S. Gajendran, professor of business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

There are many jobs that require people to show up and be present, like surgeons and nurses who need to be next to their patients, but for people with more autonomous jobs, like insurance claims adjusters, their work mostly involves themselves and a computer screen, Gajendran told Reuters Health.

For the latter group, working remotely saves time commuting and putting together an outfit for the day, he said. And without office cues that the workday has ended at five PM, people are liable to stay “plugged-in” until much later, without even realizing it, he said.

He and his co-authors sent questionnaires about remote work to 500 full-time employees in various professions, 323 of whom returned the surveys. Almost half the respondents also had their work supervisors fill out a questionnaire to rate the employee’s performance.

About 37 percent of the employees said they sometimes worked from home or from a virtual or satellite office during working hours. Most worked from home.

Employees who telecommuted tended to be rated higher for working well with others and for job dedication by their bosses, according to the results published in Personnel Psychology.

This is not the first evidence that telecommuting employees are actually more productive, said Batia Mishan Wiesenfeld, professor of management at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University.

“I would say at this point we have pretty much gotten a conclusion that telecommuting does augment performance,” said Wiesenfeld, who was not involved in the study.

“What we don’t know, or we feel like it varies, is whether the benefit comes from working longer hours, or not being able to turn off, working evenings and weekends, or from something else,” she told Reuters Health.

“It could be there’s higher wellbeing, there could be creativity benefits too,” she said. Working parents have lower stress levels when they have the option to work remotely, she noted.

In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer put an end to “remote work” in an effort to foster more collaboration.

“I think that it is clearly not a good policy if the focus is on getting people to have higher individual performance,” Wiesenfeld said of outlawing telecommuting. “But I don’t think that is the reason that she implemented that policy.”

“Arguably the problem with Yahoo was the culture,” she said.

The employer questionnaire also assessed how close the manager was to the employee, asking how often they would be willing to “bail out” the employee.

Based on the results, workers who had a good relationship with their boss performed the same whether at the office or at home. But those without a good relationship worked harder from home, “perhaps in an attempt to make the boss realize it was a good idea to give you the perk,” Gajendran said

Unlike other workplace benefits such as health insurance, which is available to every employee without discrimination, the opportunity to telecommute is more idiosyncratic, Gajendran said.

People with good relationships with their boss may get this perk and not think much of it, but for those with poorer relationships, getting the perk may move the needle of performance more, he said.

In the same vein, the researchers also found that telecommuting improved work performance more when working remotely was not the norm in the company culture.

Since jobs vary widely, whether or not telecommuting is an appropriate option and what the office policy should be will be specific to each situation, Gajendran said.

“If we genuinely believe the telecommuting benefits employees, how can we maximize those benefits,” he said.

“Does the manager feel like they can manage, is there a trusting culture, is it an organization where people are evaluated on outcomes rather than being present in office from 9 to 5? These are questions that every company has to recognize,” he said.

The true determinant of the productivity of the telecommuter is not just work location, but the support system, training and culture of the business, Gajendran said.

“In some office cultures, showing up, coming in on weekends, and staying late is valued instead of quality of work,” he said.

The organization has to be willing to change that type of culture, he said.

SOURCE: Personnel Psychology, online August 15, 2014.