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Telework: Managing Distances in a Connected World

(originally published by Booz & Company)
Since the early 1980's, when futurist Alvin Toffler's book "The Third Wave" introduced the concept of the "electronic cottage," the idea of telecommuting has intrigued both management and workers as a welcome alternative to long, traffic-bound commutes, forced captivity in Dilbert-like cubicles and inflexible and rigid workdays.

But for much of the 1980's and 90's, telecommuting remained just an idea. Many corporations experimented with the concept, allowing a few select employees to work part time from home offices, while academics and consultants conjectured about the potential organizational and social hazards of such arrangements.

It was not until after much of the conjecture died down in recent years that actual "telework" -- professionals working remotely, not only at home but in cars, from hotels, from branch offices and other non-headquarter locations -- has really taken off.

As is usual with revolutions in corporate behavior, the recent proliferation of "telework" has been fueled more by economic necessity than strategic planning. Organizations continue to downsize and cut costs while seeking ways to become more flexible and customer oriented.

The shifting economic pressures of the 1990's have been characterized by the advent of new organizational forms -- virtual enterprises, imaginary corporations, dynamic networks and flexible work teams. Inexpensive computing power, ubiquitous networks and the Internet provide employees with access to the information they need to perform their work in locations other than permanent office spaces. Employees can now work from home, clients' offices or even on the road without encountering debilitating separations from knowledge and information needed to do their jobs.

But now that technology and economics have fueled the telework fire, what must managers worry about as they try to navigate through this amorphous virtual landscape?

As yet, there is little understanding of the long-term impact of these new work modes and the human resource management issues involved. But two key questions emerge:

How will these new work modes affect productivity, job satisfaction, organizational commitment and organizational identification?

How can human resource management systems help organizations and employees cope with the virtual enterprise?

At the heart of telework, and crucial to answering these questions, is a single key facet: distance. To appreciate the impact of distance, one must realize that distance has multiple characteristics. Specifically, we suggest that: (1) it takes two to create distance, (2) distance can be more than mere geographical space, and (3) distance can create unwanted discontinuities, i.e., if you are close to one person, you might be distanced from someone else.

It Takes Two To Create Distance

In the early days of telework, most telecommuters worked at home, away from the central office, in search of a better, more flexible home and work life. But these workers quickly and justifiably began to feel distanced from the center of activities and social interaction. Not surprisingly, this sense of isolation helped dampen enthusiasm for remote working.

Despite this, the number of people working away from the central office has increased in recent years. Now, the center of organizational activity has become more and more spatially distributed.

In such an environment, one that is rapidly unfolding in organizations that we have benchmarked (such as Northern Telecom, I.B.M., Lucent Technologies), distance has become equally applicable to all employees whether they are working from their homes, from their offices or from any other location.

The key issue here is that when we think of distances, we must remember that the impact goes beyond the individual worker; it applies to at least two people in the organization. Such symmetry implicit in distances is usually ignored. For instance, while introducing a telework program, one large organization trained its telecommuters but not its "desked" employees in the use of some of the very technology -- the computers, data bases and remote access software -- that facilitated interaction between the two groups. Consequently, the desked employees did not know how to use the technology that would allow them to coordinate work with their telecommuting peers. This created tremendous dissonance between the two groups that eventually hurt corporate performance.

Distance Can Be More Than Mere Geographical Space

Ironically, even as people telework, geographical distance itself becomes less important. What becomes more salient are other distance dimensions -- psychological, informational and social.

Psychological distance is the perception of distance from others even though they might be physically close. This distance can be measured as the difference between the actual level of contact a person has with another and the desired level of contact. The desired level of contact may stem from individual personality traits such as a high need for personal contact, or lack of tolerance for ambiguous situations. It may come from specific job attributes, such as a highly interdependent job description, and it may emanate from the organizational culture itself, where poor communication, high levels of control and low levels of trust are prevalent. So, individuals with a high need for personal contact will feel distant from colleagues if they do not get the opportunity to "drop by" and speak to them every half-hour.

In a comparative study of 325 office employees and teleworkers of one large corporation, we found that geographic distance increased productivity because workers could toil in undisturbed settings. At the same time, however, we found that perceived distance has a significant impact on the potential for increasing organizational commitment, employee satisfaction, productivity and organizational identification.

Informational distance is the inability to access data relevant to perform one's task. In all the telework initiatives that we have studied, we are finding that a seamless access to electronic data is one of the necessary conditions for a successful teleworking environment. However, access to electronic information is not enough. There is a whole host of tacit information, such as becoming familiar with the informal aspects of an organization, that can be communicated only through face-to-face meetings.

In this regard, John Seely Brown of Xerox PARC emphasizes the importance of developing "communities of practice," where knowledge sharing occurs through the exchange of war stories. And, in this world of intellectual capitalism, such a sharing of tacit knowledge has a great impact on organizational productivity.

Social distance is the separation from colleagues who would otherwise be close to teleworkers as they do their jobs. Such a separation may lead to an erosion of trust between employees. Trust is salient in situations where the notion of work is abstract, boundless and continually changing. In such situations, trust implies not just attending to problems, but defining and structuring problems in meaningful ways.

As Katherine Beall of Verifone pointed out, trust is what holds the virtual workers at her company together. As she explained, "At Verifone, you can see the results of what you do, but you have to take the initiative and be self- driven. Much of the time there is no one giving instructions. You could work in Atlanta for a boss in Paris."

Close To One, Distanced From Another

At one time, employees worked from central offices, little realizing that they were distancing themselves from others outside the organization, such as customers, business partners and even peers. Now, employees are able to close these gaps and locate themselves at the right place and, in effect, manage the distances with their various constituencies, including peers, supervisors, subordinates, clients and even loved ones.

With the advent of telework, the blueprint for the corporate workplace is like a spider's web. The spider represents the worker, who might be located in different places. The strands that constitute the web represent the various distance dimensions. The location of the spider on the web determines which distances are increased and which are decreased. For instance, as compared with their desked counterparts, road warriors are closer to their clients.

Movements by any employee on one web affect distances not only for that employee, but for other employees as well. From this perspective, one can no longer look only at those toiling outside traditional offices as the teleworkers. In fact, those who come to a central office every day may be more removed from their colleagues than employees who are teleworking.

Managing Distances

So what can a manager do in this complex equation? Our studies and benchmarking efforts provide several insights as to how distances can be managed:

Manage psychological distance. The management of psychological distances (e.g., through socialization or training) can yield tremendous benefits to both organizations and individuals. Thus, there may well be more cost-effective ways to manage telework than just minimizing physical distances through the use of expensive computer equipment and costly travel.

Select appropriate individuals and jobs. Those who will succeed in telework scenarios tend to exhibit such traits as a greater ability to structure their workday or more efficiently separate work and family life. And those whose jobs are more independent and proactive will likely be more successful in these new work modes. Therefore, it will be important to select and train individuals with these characteristics and design jobs that are amenable to telework.

Adopt symmetrical policies. Organizations must institute consistent policies, such as performance appraisals, bonus systems, mentoring programs, career tracks and training, for all employees, including those who come to a central location and those who telework.

Increase socialization. The creation of social occasions for employees to get together is vital to address the social distances that result from these work arrangements. "Electronic water coolers" on the Web or a Friday evening pizza party in the office may provide ways to minimize social distances. These occasions are important for bringing together all organizational constituents, distant or not.

Provide managerial support. In our survey, teleworkers whose supervisors also worked away from a central office reported experiencing less distance from their managers than those whose supervisors did not telecommute. The autonomy, trust and supervisory support accorded
to the teleworkers were contributors in minimizing their perception of

Corporations, as we have long known them, are beginning to disappear. The walls around organizational structures have started to tumble, pulled down by microchips and the explosion of old myths about work. If we are indeed at the beginning of a new industrial revolution, telework is a key manifestation of that revolution. And how we manage the distances that lie at the heart of this revolution will help determine the winners and the losers.

Sumita Raghuram, Sumita Raghuram is a faculty member at Fordham University, where she teaches human resource management and general management. She received her Ph.D. in human resource management from the University of Minnesota.
Raghu Garud, Raghu Garud is an associate professor of management at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in strategic management and organization. His area of concentration is exploring the intersection of technology, organizations and strategy.
Batia M. Wiesenfeld, Batia M. Wiesenfeld is an assistant professor of management at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, New York University. She received her Ph.D. in management and organization behavior from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.
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