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Managing Telecommuters

How telecommuting policies affect productivity and work-family conflict.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Supervisory Approaches and Paradoxes in Managing Telecommuting Implementation (Subscription or fee required.)
Authors: Brenda A. Lautsch, Ellen Ernst Kossek, and Susan C. Eaton
Publisher: Human Relations, vol. 62, no. 6
Date: June 2009

Many factors have contributed to the increased popularity of telecommuting: the Internet’s emergence, the desire of eco-friendly companies to minimize work commutes, and a growing realization among managers that productive employees require a healthy work–life balance. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of employees were working from home at least once a week, which raises important questions for supervisors: How should telecommuting employees best be managed? How often should they be contacted? What should their work schedule be?

The authors of this study surveyed telecommuters, office workers, and managers at two large organizations and came up with surprising answers. Although frequent contact with telecommuters is beneficial, managers who monitor telecommuters more closely or with higher levels of scrutiny than other office workers may appear to distrust the telecommuters, reducing their productivity. Past research indicated that telecommuters have fewer work–family conflicts than office workers. The authors found that supervisors who use the same management style to oversee both telecommuters and office workers reduce tension and resentment between the two groups, resulting in a sharp decrease in work–life conflicts for office workers and erasing the differences between the level of such conflict in telecommuters’ and office workers’ lives.

The study also found that compelling telecommuters to stick to a conventional work schedule did not have a negative impact on their work–life balance, and that managers who don’t define telecommuters’ work schedules can find themselves mediating conflicts between those working in the office and those working at home. Encouraging telecommuters to separate work and family time at home can have a positive impact, the authors found, because it provides them with much-needed structure, but it can also have a negative effect on team relations. Telecommuters who may have previously been willing to work during odd hours and to help others on the team meet deadlines are less willing to do so when they separate work and family time during the work day.

Bottom Line: With more people able and eligible to work from home, the way companies implement telecommuting policies will determine whether these employees are more productive and experience less work–family conflict.

Author profile:

  • Matt Palmquist is an award-winning feature writer for the San Francisco–based SF Weekly, and a founding staff writer and contributing editor at Miller-McCune magazine.

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