No Place Like Home?: Exploring the Myths of Telecommuting

This article first appeared in the UConn Business magazine, Volume 1, Issue 1 (Summer 2009)

Telecommuting is generally defined as “the practice of working at home and interacting with employers, clients, and fellow workers through communication technology.” According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, over 20 million Americans now telecommute on a semi-regular basis, a trend that increases each year.

Given the growing popularity of telecommuting, it is not surprising that many commonly-held beliefs surrounding this practice have arisen. Perhaps the two most widespread are:

1: Telecommuting enhances job satisfaction, and

2: Telecommuting enhances the work-family balance.

But are these beliefs valid? Common sense would suggest that working from home can reduce the stress of the morning and evening commute, provide a comfortable work environment, and allow more work schedule flexibility. Human resource managers often cite such benefits when recommending this alternative work mode. However, much of the research on the
benefits of telecommuting is inconclusive. Some studies indicate higher levels of job satisfaction among telecommuters, while other research finds that extensive telecommuting may result in lower satisfaction. Similar disagreement exists in the literature on work-family balance.

To help resolve these discrepancies, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor John Veiga of the School of Business Management Department, in collaboration with Professor Zeki Simsek (UConn) and Professor Timothy Golden (Renssalaer), has conducted comprehensive research over several years, and their findings offer some surprising insights into the complexities of telecommuting.

Veiga and his colleagues analyzed a sample of 321 professional-level employees to determine whether the extent of telecommuting has a positive or negative effect on job satisfaction. The study focused on the in-office vs. out-of-office time of experienced telecommuters rather than the more common comparisons between telecommuters and non-telecommuters.

Veiga and his colleagues contacted a random sample of 1,000 professional level employees from a large, high-tech firm that encourages telecommuting. Filtering the responses down to 321, they used regression analysis on the results of a web-based survey. Respondents spanned a wide variety of jobs within the company, including marketing, sales, accounting, programming, engineering, and others.

The findings suggest that there is a curvilinear relationship between the extent of telecommuting and job satisfaction.
The shape of this curve is an inverted U, somewhat akin to a bell curve minus the tails. In other words, job satisfaction initially increases as the extent of telecommuting increases; however, this satisfaction tapers off at higher levels of telecommuting and eventually reaches a plateau. In addition, the slope of this curve is strongly affected by other factors, such as the nature of the telecommuter’s job.

Veiga and his associates found that employees who need to rely on one another to perform their tasks effectively are less likely to gain job satisfaction from extensive telecommuting. The same moderating influence applies to those who have less autonomy in how they perform their jobs. In both these cases, extensive absence from the workplace, and the resultant decrease in face-to-face interaction and feedback, can lead to frustration. The lesson is simply, if you regularly depend upon others to do your job or have limited job discretion, extensive telecommuting could put your sense of job satisfaction at serious risk.

Veiga and his colleagues provide a valuable perspective for corporate managers to consider, principally by challenging the assumption that the more employees telecommute, the more satisfied they are, irrespective of the nature of their jobs.

In a second study, Veiga and his colleagues examined the relationship between telecommuting and work-family balance. It has become a workplace axiom that by working at home, employees are better able to balance the conflicting demands of job and family. But is that true?

This time, over 1,200 professional level employees were surveyed and 454 respondents were selected for analysis. These employees worked at home an average of 20 hours per week and had been telecommuting for an average of 4 years.

The results of this study revealed that, although the telecommuters’ work interfered less with their family demands, the reverse occurred: family demands interfered more heavily with work. In fact, the more extensively individuals worked from home, the greater the demands of family became. The research shows that family members who would be reluctant to interrupt someone in the workplace seem to be much more inclined to interrupt the same individual working at home, even for relatively trivial requests.

And the telecommuter seems more apt to honor these interruptions, resulting in lost productivity. For example, ask yourself this question, “If I am working from home during the week and an ailing parent needs to be driven for regular medical visits, would I feel comfortable saying no?”

As with the job satisfaction study, job autonomy also helps offset family demands. In fact, telecommuters with greater autonomy reported far less conflict between family demands and work demands compared to those with less job autonomy. Not surprisingly, for telecommuters with larger households, family demands seriously conflicted with work demands.

In their research, Veiga and his colleagues deconstruct some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the benefits of telecommuting. Their findings can help us better recognize how to manage this growing trend and make it clear that when it comes to telecommuting, one size does not fit all employees.

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