TELEWORK: A CONSIDERATION OF ITS IMPACT ON
Karen L. Mallia
Sharmila Pixy Ferris
Abstract. Telework (or using computers, modems, and faxes to work at a location geographically removed from a central office site) is a growing trend in today's work world, and is increasingly seen as an answer to the issues of balancing family and work. Yet a focused consideration of the impact of telecommuting on individuals and organizations does not currently exist. After reviewing both empirical research and popular writings on the effects of telecommuting on individuals and organizations, the authors of this paper conclude that telework may have a far greater impact on the nature of organizations, the nature of work, and the nature of human relationships than has been conceived thus far. Telework calls for a fundamental re-thinking of organizational practices and individual roles and responsibilities. Not only does telework call for individuals to re-think every aspect of work, from their own identity and work and home roles, to psychological and compensatory issues, but it necessitates that organizations using telework fundamentally rethink and restructure the traditional organizational structure and work practices.
Telework or telecommuting is a rapidly growing trend in today’s work world, and has recently been the focus of much popular writing and some scholarly research. Given the increasingly significant role of telecommuting in the workforce, a comprehensive consideration of its impact on individuals and organizations is indicated. To date, however, no such focused and inclusive consideration exists.This essay reviews the existing literature on telecommuting (both scholarly and popular), considering its impact on individuals and organizations. After conducting a synthesis and meta-analysis of the literature, the authors draw conclusions about the impact of telework on the nature of organizations, the nature of work, and the nature of human relationships.
Though the term has become commonly accepted in today’s workplace, we would like to begin by clarifying the definition of telework or telecommuting as used in this essay.We see telework as any work involving the "use of computers and telecommunications equipment to do office work away from a central, conventional office" (Kraut, 1987, p. 114). The work world today has seen an explosion in the phenomenon of telework, and telecommuting has developed into a trend that marks the new millennium. This trend was enabled by the proliferation of the personal computer in the 1980’s, empowered by the wildfire spread of network access through the Internet in the 1990’s, and fueled by such factors as the increased workload created by cost-squeezing and downsizing, and the increased pressures on workers generated by dual-income families.Today, estimates of the number of workers who telecommute vary, depending on the sample considered. For example, Tucker (1993) estimates that between three and six million Americans telecommute regularly, while Link Resources estimates 7.6 million Americans telecommuting as of 1996.This does not include the estimated one million mobile workers who use their cars, client offices, hotels or satellite work areas. (Greengard, 1994).
While the number of reported teleworkers may vary, it is undeniable that thousands of people telecommute regularly (Greengard, 1994; Hill, Hawkins & Miller, 1996; Manire, 1997; Olson, 1989; Olson, 1987; PR Newswire, 1997). While this number was predicted to rise to 25 million by the year 2000 (Greengard, 1994; Holmes, 1993), that prediction has yet to be fulfilled. The latest figures show that in 1999 over 19 million workers telecommute at least once a month (O’Brien, 2000).
The Impact of Telework on Individuals
Telecommuting has a wide range of consequences for the individual, affecting both work and home life. Individuals making the decision to telecommute need to be aware of the potential impact of this work mode.Many workers choose to telecommute after only a superficial consideration of its advantages. These advantages appear to be many, benefiting the individual in both the work and home/family arena. Primarily, telework allows for flexibility of time and place. The telecommuter can hope to find freedom, greater autonomy, and flexibility in the timing of work. Additional benefits can include monetary savings on commuting expenses, work clothes and lunches out; the potential to combine work and child care responsibilities; the ability to concentrate on tasks without the interruptions of co-workers; and the opportunity to better integrate family and work responsibilities (Hill, Hawkins & Miller, 1996; Kraut, 1987; Olson, 1989; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). Not commuting also can save time that can be exploited for other purposes, and can reduce stress associated with rush-hour traffic (Salomon & Salomon, 1984). It works particularly well for employees who have skills in high demand (Olson, 1987).
The research and popular literature we found clearly show that telecommuting can have clear and valuable benefits for the employees. These benefits are what lead many individuals to elect to telecommute. However, our research also revealed that the impact of telework on the individual is far more complex than initially meets the eye. Telework impacts individuals in the areas of technology, identity, lifestyle, family and household responsibilities, compensation, and advancement. Individual teleworkers are affected differently, depending upon such factors as the nature of their work, their work styles, their personalities, and their gender.
Perhaps the most immediate factor that impacts teleworkers is the technology involved in this work mode. Telecommuters need to be somewhat autonomous and knowledgeable about home office technology. Difficulties with technology and equipment are among the leading complaints of teleworkers (Johnson, 1997; Tanaka, 1997). In fact, one analyst estimates that the “downtime” of remote users brought on by technological glitches will amount to nearly $4 million in lost productivity (Johnson, 1997). Telecommuters should consider the fact that working at home brings physical isolation from technical support. Some teleworkers feel that they get less support with work-related issues like equipment malfunction or work overflow (Kraut, 1989).While it is ultimately the organization’s responsibility to ensure that equipment and technology function, individual teleworkers should be aware of the pivotal role technology will play in their work.
Lifestyle and Identity
Through technology, telecommuters can work from geographically remote locations. This physical distance is another factor that has significant consequences for teleworkers. Salomon and Salomon (1984) contend that telework doesn’t just change a person’s work location, but a person’s deeply seated work patterns and in turn, impinges on the work-home relationship. In effect, telework constitutes a major lifestyle change and has profound consequences. In fact, some researchers count individual psychological concerns as the overriding effect of telecommuting (Hamilton, 1987).
One such concern is identity and work role. As Sproull and Kiesler (1991) observe “...for professionals in our society, work provides a substantial measure of self identity. Going to the office is an important component of that identity. It takes a strong person to sustain that identity in isolation from peers and the social context of work.”
Even if he/she is the type of individual who can sustain his/her work identity in relative isolation, the teleworker needs to be aware of other social needs related to the workplace. The typical individual working at home is likely to spend sixteen or more hours a day in the house. As Salomon & Salomon (1984) point out, futuristic notions of the electronic cottage where people work and amuse themselves endlessly ignores the fact that human beings do need to interact with others and with the surrounding environment. “...Unless the individual increases his or her participation in other social organizations, the shift to working-at-home may result in his or her social needs remaining unsatisfied” (Shamir & Salomon, 1985, p. 458). In addition, the potential for “cabin fever” becomes very real.
Another issue of real concern to telecommuters is that of role blurring. Hall’s role conflict model (cited in Salomon & Salomon, 1984, p. 22) helps explain the notion of a married woman attempting to work and maintain home and child care responsibilities. Hall reveals that men have sub-identities similar to women, but “at present, men have few issues with role conflicts because, as opposed to the women’s case, they do not operate simultaneously." Using this model, Salomon and Salomon (1984) suggest that
The overlapping in time and space among the roles of employee, mother, housekeeper, and wife should lead to a greater conflict ... In terms of space and time, compressing the employee’s sub identity into the remaining sub-identities is likely to increase the conflict, not only in a psychological sense, but also in an inability to perform the necessary functions of each role when these are temporally and spatially intertwined”(sic) (1984, p. 22). While working at home, one may be more likely to experience simultaneous conflicting demands on their (sic) time, attention, and energies. (p.460)Issues of identity, role, and lifestyle are rarely dealt with in the popular literature on telecommuting, but do have important consequences in the life of a teleworker, as do related issues of family and household on telework.
Family and Household
The impact of telework on the teleworker's household can be complex. This is evident in Kraut’s (1987) observation that,
The effects of family life on working at home were complex. Interestingly, in this sample of salaried employees who performed supplementary home work, having a spouse led them to work at home, but having children made them less likely to want to work at home and to believe that they could do it successfully (p. 123).Hartman, Stoner & Arora (1991) also found a significant correlation between family disruption and telecommuting satisfaction.
Some researchers hypothesize that family tensions and role conflicts may be particularly acute for those whose role salience is more strongly focused on the family as opposed to work (Hartman, Stoner & Arora, 1991). Telecommuting studies “must consider the role of family support, family disruption, and the centrality of given roles (family or work) to one’s total self image” (Hartman, Stoner & Arora, 1991, p. 211). If the salience of one’s role as a householder (or mother/father/elder-care provider) is greater than one’s role as a worker (as it certainly can be), and one experiences role conflict in telework, this issue becomes one of real importance to the individual considering a telework position or option.
Others question whether the flexibility provided by telework enables workers to do household chores more effectively (Callentine, 1995 in Hill, Hawkins & Miller, 1996) or enhances family relationships (Greengard, 1994). Hill, Hawkins and Miller (1996) found that IBM professionals who telecommuted "were not significantly more likely to report that it was easier to balance work and personal/home life, nor that they had sufficient time for personal/home life” (p. 296). Essentially, life for the teleworker is different, but not necessarily better or worse. If managed successfully, telecommuting allows the individual to balance family and work responsibilities. If not managed effectively, telework can lead to a great deal of stress.
While telecommuting may be a good choice for those individuals seeking autonomy or flexibility, teleworkers should be aware of issues of compensation that may influence their choice to telecommute. At the bottom line, companies want to make sure they’re really getting their “money’s worth.” Should salaried tele-professionals be paid the same as those in the conventional office? Generally, they are. Some are paid hourly. In other instances, companies have used working at home as an excuse to reduce full-time workers to permanent part-time, and thus deny them benefits (Olson & Primps, 1984). A law suit currently in progress accuses Microsoft of denying benefits to workers -- claiming that over 30 percent of its work force consists of project workers who are denied lucrative stock options offered to full-time employees. A federal appeals court ruled against Microsoft in July 1997, and Microsoft is appealing to the US Supreme Court (Kane, 1997).
The issue of compensation is one fraught with potential for employee abuse. Consider what Gates predicted in 1996:
An employee in an office is assumed to be working the whole time he or she is there and is paid accordingly, but the same employee working at home might be credited (perhaps at a different rate) only for the time he or she is actually performing work. If the baby starts crying, Dad or Mom will click “not available” and take care of the child with unpaid minutes away from the job, the “available” signal will tell the network to start delivering work that needs attention. Part-time work and job sharing will take on new meanings (p. 175).The teleworker needs to be aware of the issue of accountability. Unlike office workers whose salaries are paid even as they chit-chat around the water cooler, or if they spend a half hour on personal phone calls or reading the morning paper at their desks, the teleworker may be forced to account for every moment of down time. Telecommuting’s opportunities for exploitation led the AFL-CIO to call for a ban on it as early as 1983 (Horner & Day, 1995). That such exploitation does exist can be seen in Olson and Primps' (1984) finding of negative repercussions. In some telecommuting cases they examined, teleworkers were reclassified from full to permanent part-time, paid only for hours worked or piece-rates, and deprived of sick time and vacation time.
It should also be noted that, despite corporate fears that out-of-sight workers may not work as much, in reality, most teleworkers contend the opposite is true. Many wind up fielding phone calls in the evening, or piling an extra hour or two on top of the regular eight--and facing the resulting issues of burnout, errors, and marital discord (Greengard, 1994). Individuals should be aware that the potential for burnout is quite real. Hill, Hawkins and Miller (1996) found that:
Having a home office with a door that closes enables the mobile teleworkers to work with fewer external cues about when it is time for work to stop and make it less likely that they would be available for interaction with their family. One mobile teleworker expressed it this way, ‘I am always at work...between 5:00 a.m. and midnight, seven days a week.’ (p. 298).The vast majority of telecommuting is constituted by workplace augmentation. Enabling additional “homework” encourages employers to take advantage of workers unable to unplug mentally and physically. Kraut (1987) found that:
the more time people spend working at home the more time they also spend working in the office (or vice versa). Of the 322 respondents who answered the appropriate question, 153 had worked at home in the week preceding the survey, an average of 7.5 hours, (i.e., a full working day). But they also worked 36.5 hours at a company location, significantly more than he 33.5 hours put in by those people who did no work at home (p. 121).Individual telecommuters need to be aware of the complex issues of compensation in order to protect themselves from possible exploitation if they choose to telecommute. Factors of compensation can be balanced by such advantages of telework as greater autonomy, flexibility, and the opportunity to balance work and family needs/responsibilities. However, the individual should be aware of both sides of the complexissue in order to best understand the potentials of telework.
Rethinking Issues of Advancement and Power
The impact of telework on individuals can be significant, as demonstrated above, but an equally significant issue for employees is the potential impact of telecommuting on career prospects. It is undeniable that telework impacts the individual’s career due to his/her lack of physical presence in the workplace. For the individual, physical presence in the office brings visibility and concomitant career opportunities. “When managers do listen, it’s mostly to people close to them. Most talking and listening occurs among people who are physically and hierarchically close to each other” (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991, p. 87). [Emphasis added.]
Power. Research on power underlines the critical role nonverbal behavior plays in organizational power: nonverbal behavior both establishes and reveals power structures (Andersen & Bowman, 1992). Teleworkers are operating partially or entirely out of the loop, and while they telework they remain unable to observe, or participate in the deep structures of organizations.Power is perceptual. It is created and sustained through communicative acts (Conrad, 1994). Many teleworkers romanticize the effects of telecommuting and underestimate potential career costs. “Internal career mobility is lower among people who are unable to participate in the informal contact networks that operate in the workplace” (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991, p. 122). Lack of physical presence in the office has been shown to impact an employee’s relationship with his/her supervisor; his/her ideological attachment to the organization is decreased by seeing fewer reminders of larger corporate goals and corporate culture; he/she loses the opportunity to learn from more experienced or successful workers (Atkinson, 1985; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991).
Evaluation and Promotion. Evaluations and promotions become more difficult with telecommuters. In theory, promoting and rewarding employees on objective performance is the ideal. Unfortunately, few organizations practice purely objective evaluation, and few positions above middle management have the mechanisms for such evaluation. It is true that sales people are judged by their results, and that advertising copywriters and art directors like those at Chiat/Day (a forerunner of the virtual office) can be evaluated solely on the advertising produced (Greengard, 1994). But in the vast majority of employee evaluations, organizational theorists emphasize the importance of relationships, power and politics in levels above middle management (Conrad, 1984). The relevance of “face time” in the average office cannot be underestimated. Even professionals who found great autonomy in telework, and reported enhanced relationships with their supervisors, believed that working at home would have an effect on their prospects for promotion (Hamilton, 1987; Olson & Primps, 1984). Telecommuters need to be aware of the potential impact of this mode of work on their prospects for advancement in order to make work choices best suited to their needs.
Management. As a telecommuting manager, successfully doing one's job can be fraught with difficulty. Without physical presence and cues, it becomes harder to monitor staff performance, and to exercise control. As Sproull and Kiesler (1991) observe
The relative lack of status cues in electronic communication means that supervisors who want or need to invoke authority to influence employees must do so explicitly. This can be distasteful to supervisors who would prefer to rely on implicit means to remind ohters of their position (p. 122).The net result could be problematic for telecommuting managers. Some consultants view two years as the upper limit for telecommuting stints without negative career repercussions. “Not only does performing alone not build the skills necessary to manage and interface with people, but some of the project synergy is lost when team members are away from the office for extended periods of time” (Hamilton, 1987, p. 94). Managers who telecommute may therefore wish to do so for shorter periods, or less often weekly, or they should consider creating alternative work environments that would be more supportive of a remote management style.
Impact on Women
The consequences of telecommuting considered thus far are significant and intricate. But these complexities multiply when considering female employees. As was illustrated in the introduction to this essay, the number of telecommuters is rapidly growing. A large percentage of today’s teleworkers are, and will continue to be, women (O’Brien, 2000). Understanding telecommuting from the perspective of gender is important because the growth of telecommuting has occurred alongside the dramatic growth of female participation in the labor force, especially among married women. In 1960, 18.6% of married women with children under 6 in intact families were in the labor force; by 1981 this had risen to 48.7% (Kraut, 1987, p. 125). As of last year, the percentage is 62.7 (U.S. Statistical Abstracts, 1997), and 58.8% of all women are in the work force (U. S. Department of Labor, 1995). The rise of two-career families has impacted organizations in a myriad of ways, from encouraging on-site day care programs, to offering child care and elder care referral services and reimbursement accounts, to extending maternity (and paternity) and adoption leaves. Undoubtedly, the interaction between these two concurrent trends must be evaluated and understood.
Women today are truly an essential part of the work force, and are often targeted by the popular press as the ideal population for telecommuting. One reason for this is that the gender-stereotyping of housework and household division of labor in our culture has not changed in the vast majority of households, even as increasing numbers of women have entered the workforce in recent years. Women still do about 70 percent of all unpaid household work, and almost all the extra work associated with child care regardless of whether they are employed outside the household (Kraut, 1989).
Other research supports these findings. Wellman et al. (1996) observe that:
Telework reinforces the gendered division of household labor because women teleworkers do more family care and household work. Women are more likely to report high stress over the conflict of work and family demands, and the lack of leisure time … female teleworking clerks are more family oriented than are their office counterparts ... Yet fusing domestic and work settings can be disruptive and can embed women more deeply in the household (p. 223).Several other studies suggest that full-time work at home is a form of marginal labor force participation, offering flexibility for the disabled, mothers with young children or those in remote rural locations (Kraut, 1989). Kraut’s statistics show that this “flexibility comes at a price; people who work at home earn less, have less income stability, and have fewer fringe effects than other workers” (1989, p. 27) and, further, that home workers were far more likely than on-site workers to work part time; that home workers who worked part time were primarily women; and that people who work primarily at home earn less than those who work in conventional locations (1989, p. 30-31). Among clerical workers studied, home workers received just 83 percent of the annual earnings of on-site office workers, and were less likely to receive any fringe benefits (Kraut, 1989). In other words, flexibility comes at a price. This price may be a small one for the teleworker who feels that savings in childcare, eldercare, or commuting expenses outweigh the possible losses of benefits, but it is a price of which she should be aware.
Given the many benefits of telecommuting (discussed earlier) it is no surprise that teleworking is popularly touted as the answer to a working mother’s dreams. Telecommuting can indeed be an excellent choice – but it can also serve to exacerbate a woman’s conflicts between work life and home life, to reinforce an anachronistic division of labor, and to undermine long range professional success. All of the effects of telework have the potential for negative repercussions for women. First, the psychic stress associated with role blurring, role conflict and family tensions can be more acute for women telecommuters. Second, the social isolation is likely to be more painful for women, both socially, as well as from a career standpoint. The discriminatory realities of the workplace make it difficult enough for women to succeed in the traditional organization. When the principle of“out of sight, out of mind,” operates, the long-range consequences for any woman--and for women as a class--are bleak. Thirdly, women cannot underestimate the educational value of presence in the office, including observation and modeling of work tasks, work styles, absorbing corporate culture, participation in the informal communication networks of the office, as well as carving out a position of personal power. Some researchers have already suggested the necessity of monitoring telecommuting among women, minorities and older employees to see if was negatively affecting their chances for career advancement (DeSanctis in Hamilton, 1987). Fourth, due to cultural and corporate norms, women are at much greater risk of exploitation through work at home. That includes personal stresses from the expectations that they can perform two jobs simultaneously to issues regarding pay reductions, piece work rates, and compulsory reduction from full time to part time work. Women already earn less for comparable work than men; telework offers the danger of that percentage backsliding even further.
Thus, most, if not all, of the repercussions found in telecommuting are magnified for women (Olson, 1987; Shamir & Salomon, 1985; Hamilton, 1987; Kraut, 1989; Hartman, Stoner & Arora, 1991; Wellman, et al., 1996). On the plus side, the “magnified repercussions” means that the advantages of telecommuting for women are also substantial. Several studies suggest that full-time work at home constitutes a form of participation for those on the fringes of the labor force, who may otherwise choose not to participate, or be barred from doing so due to disabilities. Telecommmuting can offer flexibility for the disabled, mothers with young children or those in remote rural locations (Kraut, 1989). Telework can also offer independence, greater autonomy, and flexibility of time and place. Women who telecommute can save substantially on such work-related expenses as wardrobe bills (for dry-cleaning bills, and work clothes) and child care. Potential loss of advancement can be replaced with the opportunity to better integrate family and work responsibilities. Additionally, some research indicates that the flexibility in scheduling that telework provides has the potential for “positive spillover” between work and family life and seems to be just what today’s dual-income families need to balance work and family responsibilities (Hill, Hawkins & Miller, 1996, p.294).
Conclusion: Impact on individualsThe literature indicates that telecommuting can be highly effective when given the right person, the right employer, and the right circumstances. It is ideal for those who might otherwise be unwilling or unable to participate in the workforce, such as those with physical or other disabilities. It can be the answer for those who are willing to forgo the corporate fast track for autonomy for the opportunity to spend more time with their families. It can also be highly successful with highly motivated individuals who can build their own firewall between work and personal lives, those who have needed skills or are valued employees, and who have employers willing to work with their needs. Such an ideal telecommuter works from home a few days (possibly even just one or two days) per week, using the home office to perform more independent activities, and the corporate office for activities that necessitate more interpersonal interaction. The nature of this individual’s work allows a great degree of autonomy, and is amenable to objective performance measures. The successful telecommuter is an excellent communicator, outlining guidelines and work schedule to both family and co-workers, superiors and subordinates. S/he is technologically literate and fully networked, and has a functional home office. The successful telecommuter is either a person who has chosen to telecommute for the advantages it offers in terms of work and family, or is someone who recognizes that promotion may mean that telecommuting can only be a part-time or short-term alternative, or that promotion may entail a different degree of networking.
However, the teleworker should keep in mind that there is an equal potential for negative repercussions of teleworking for the individual. Such negative consequences include changes in the quality and amount of interpersonal and organizational communication (as discussed in the following section). There are a host of others: individual psychological factors such as blurring the boundaries between work and home, role conflict, family conflict, social and technological isolation, as well as employee compensation, career derailment, and a serious potential for exploitation.
The Impact of Telework on Organizations
Telework must demonstrate significant potential benefit to the organization for the organization to make the substantial investment in equipment and personnel necessary to build the telework infrastructure. Fortunately for the future of telework, significant economic benefits can accrue to organizations which commit to telework, even after they equip employees to work at home (supplying equipment such as computer, printer, modem, fax). Companies save $2 for every $1 invested in equipment and extra phone lines for employees (Grantham in PS Enterprises, 1995, p. 4). Expensive downtown office space and parking requirements are eliminated or minimized. Organizations also benefit because telecommuting employees have been shown to be more productive, by anywhere between 2 and 40 percent (Atkinson, 1985). Telecommuting allows organizations to attract and retain people with skills highly in demand (Atkinson, 1985; Greengard, 1994; Olson, 1989). But the organizations that do incorporate telecommuting need to consider the consequences carefully, as telework’s potential effects are wide-ranging.
Rethinking Traditional Work Practices
Telework, as with other information technologies, may have a far greater impact on the nature of organizations, the nature of work, and the nature of human relationships than we could have expected. This leads to the necessity for a fundamental rethinking/restructuring of traditional work practices. As Gates (1996) notes,
Information technology will affect much more than the physical location and a supervision of employees. The very nature of almost every business organization will have to be reexamined. The reexamination should include a critical look at the organization's structure and the balance between its inside, full-time staff and the outside consultants and firms it works with (p. 176).Although visionaries like Gates recognize that telecommutation introduces a need for a fundamental reexamination of the existing system, this has not been recognized by much of the work world. This circumstance needs to be taken into account as telework increasingly becomes a part of the work world (and the fact that it hasn’t may account for the relatively slow growth of telecommuting in the U.S.A, as has been reported by many researchers. See Bjerklie, 1995; Girard, 1997a; Sullivan & Lussier, 1995; Wellman et al., 1996.).
The effects of telecommuting on the organization are complex and many. They include:
• Changing the way an organization hires, evaluates and terminates employees.
• Trading long-standing supervisory procedures for remote supervision.
• Altering expectations about the meaning of promotion to management when organizations become flatter.
• Reexamining the criteria for compensation, for effects of telecommuting on rewards and promotion, and liability.
• Re-routing familiar styles and channels of communication; management opposition to this re-routing as a potential threat to control of communication.
• Instilling corporate culture without regular contact; sustaining loyalty among employees; protecting data security.
While each of these effects is consequential and worthy of an expanded consideration, taken together they indicate the wide ranging potential consequences of telework for organizational policy and structure, and make a strong argument for the necessity of re-thinking traditional organizational practices. However, because many of these effects relate to organizational structure and/or policy, they will not be considered in any depth here. Rather, one particular consequence of telework will be considered in more detail: the impact of telework on communication.
Communication is in many ways the heart of the contemporary organization, and telework impacts various aspects of organizational communication, from “traditional” interpersonal communication to the newer man-machine communication. The impact of telecommuting on organizational communication is significant enough that it merits particular attention.
Formal and informal communication. Not surprisingly, many of the consequences that teleworking has on the organization are related to communication, as the relatively new medium of telecommuting changes the normal or expected channels of communication. Telework affects formal and informal communication, interpersonal and network communication.
Both formal and informal communication are essential and inevitable in organizations (Conrad, 1994). Some estimate that managers spend almost 50 percent of their day in unscheduled meetings (Kraut, 1989). Removing a worker from the office environment full time cannot help but have significant implications for his/her participation in informal communication networks. As Kraut (1989) states, “Physical proximity is the only technology that adequately supports informal communication...." (p. 40).
The loss of regular face-to-face communication has wide-ranging implications for both the organization and the individual. First, organizational norms are assimilated by observation and modeling. Second, skills and information are also learned from observing others and through participation in informal communication networks. Third, informal networks have been shown to improve decision-making. Fourth, creativity and innovation often flow from communication and collaboration among people in proximity (Conrad, 1994; Kraut, 1987; Shamir & Salomon, 1985). The organization committing to adopting telework must consider alternative ways to make up for lack of teleworkers’ physical presence.
Active participation in informal communication networks has been related to high levels of job satisfaction. People isolated from informal ties tend to have low morale, low levels of commitment to the organization, less knowledge about their organization, and lower levels of satisfaction (Conrad, 1994). While telecommuting does not necessarily entail the loss of regular face-to-face contact, teleworkers should be aware of the possible consequences of diminished face-to-face interpersonal contact, and ensure that alternatives exist for teleworkers. Failure to do so can lead to lack of effectiveness and lowered productivity. For example, enrollment in one data processing telework program dropped from 60 to 48, because employees “felt they were losing touch with the office grapevine” (Hamilton, 1987, p. 93). Other research supports this finding. Cheseboro and Bonsall (1989) observe that, “once established as routine, telework ceases in most cases to be the preferred option. Most people enjoy the personal contacts of working together with their colleagues” (p. 141), while Wellman et al. (1996) cites studies that found informal relationships deteriorated among teleworkers.
Work isn’t just about earning a living, and communication isn’t simply task-related. Innumerable social rewards grow out of work, and are difficult to quantify (Jackson, 1987). Teleworking inevitably alters both formal and informal organizational communication. The potential consequences of telecommuting can be both positive and negative, but the fact remains that telework has consequences for both formal and informal communication that must be taken into account by the organization.
Computer-mediated communication. Computer technologies are the lynchpin of communication within organizations. Telework would not be possible without modern communications technology. All communication in and through a computer is broadly referred to as computer mediated communication (see Ferris, 1997). Thus the effects of telework are intimately tied into that of computer mediated communication. As Wellman et al. (1996) point out, the effects of teleworking “may be due as much to physical separation from the organizational office as to the use of computer-mediated communication.” Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is the great enabler of telework in countless businesses and industries. The recent spectacular growth of e-mail has contributed to the viability of home offices (Ditlea, 1995). Networking and Internet connections enable remote employees to access the office computer and data, as well as communicate with supervisors, co-workers and the rest of the world.
A telecommuter’s reliance on computer-mediated communication inevitably affects the nature of organizational communication, potentially affects the quality of communication, and triggers many questions regarding its potential social and psychological repercussions. It is known that electronic mail has the potential to generate increased pressures for immediate answers, that absence of immediate feedback changes communication, that the loss of nonverbal behavior such as voice intensity and gestures may weaken social influence, and that computer-mediated communication has the potential for reducing status and position cues (Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984).
Most research on CMC has been on individual or group outcomes (Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984; Wellman, et al. 1996) rather than on its contribution to telework. Some studies have evaluated characteristics and impacts of computer-mediated communication when CMC is selected from a range of available channels of organizational communication (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992; Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984; Ziv, 1996), but none have evaluated CMC as a substitute for other communication, or its effects in the possible absence of any face-to-face contact, such as a full-time teleworker would experience. While e-mail is best suited for task-related information exchange, studies have also reported its adaptability for social uses (Steinfeld, 1987). However, no study to date has reported findings on organizational communication in the complete absence of face-to-face contact between an employee and supervisors or co-workers. We can safely assume that a teleworker relying more greatly upon e-mail and CMC will see dramatic changes in the nature of both formal and informal communication, and in the employee-employer relationship. At this point, we can only speculate or hypothesize as to the nature of these changes. It is unlikely that e-mail can ever entirely substitute for speaking in-person to other human beings (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991).
Conclusion and Future Directions
Given the complexities involved, it is almost impossible to draw any more concrete conclusions while telecommuting is still in its developing phases. But the authors of this essay do feel that the many potential consequences of telework must be carefully considered by both the individual telecommuter and the organization. Telecommuting most certainly calls for a fundamental re-thinking of organizational practices and individual roles and responsibilities. As Bill Gates (1996) points out, telework means that, “The very nature of almost every business organization will have to be reexamined” (p. 176). To Gates’ statement we add that individual teleworkers will need to re-think every aspect of work, from their own identity and work and home roles, to psychological and compensatory issues. Such re-thinking will constitute changes in both discourse and practices of work and the workplace. We, as communication practitioners, have a significant role to play in understanding these changes, and in bringing teleworkers to a thoughtful consideration of the costs and benefits involved.
Telework is an ever more important issue today, and we have attempted a focused review of its impact on individuals and organizations. However, many fruitful avenues for further research still exist. Some issues we touched on lightly; others call for a fresh look. For example, one fruitful area of research may lie in the study of clerical teleworkers. Clerical work appears particularly suited to telework, and clerical workers comprise a substantial portion of teleworkers (Kraut, 1989). Yet, in many ways telecommmuting for clerical workers is quite unlike telecommuting among professionals: the inherent nature of the work itself, the standards for performance evaluation, and compensation (salary versus hourly). These greatly affect the conduct of telecommuting programs, as well as perceived satisfaction on the part of both employers and employees. An in-depth analysis of clerical teleworkers would be both interesting and productive. Similarly, it may be of real interest for researchers to investigate more fully whether telework is indeed worse for women (as our somewhat limited examination of gender issues in telework led us to conclude).
Further research is also called for in a consideration of how telework impacts and alters the traditional corporate systems. Such issues as the effects of telecommuting on communication systems, employee expectations, evaluation and promotion structures, and corporate cultures become important. As telecommuting grows and becomes an established work mode, a consideration of its long-term impacts – upon the individual teleworker’s family and household life, physical health and stress levels, advancement and promotion – also becomes important, as does a focus on how telework extends, delimits, and otherwise changes employees capabilities. Given the present lack of focused research in this area, we can only hope that researchers will be inspired to give it greater attention.
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