In the process of developing our new assessment tool to better help you understand a distributed workforce in the “new normal” we have done a lot of reading to inform our thinking, the main points of which we thought we should share.
Turns out, people who are more experienced at working remotely cope better – those who aren’t are going to need ongoing support. Who knew?
One of the primary factors that emerged in a meta-analytic study on telecommuting by Gajendran and Harrison (2007) was the extent of experience with a distributed work arrangement.
Their findings indicated that those with greater experience with this distributed work arrangement (more than a year) had lower work-family conflict and lower role stress relative to those with less experience (less than a year). There were also key findings around the individual choices involved in and weight of remote working arrangements.
This finding seems to indicate that some of the beneficial effects of working remotely may accrue over time – one possible explanation being that as people gain more experience of working away from a central location, they develop strategies and ways of adjusting to this mode of working. One example might be the setting of clear expectations with co-workers on availability and channels through which they can be contacted once the competing demands of home and work life are better understood.
It’s worth reiterating that the researchers defined “experienced” as having worked remotely for over a year, so most of us and our colleagues that have been forced into this situation don’t fall into that bracket (even though some weeks feel like they last decades right now). There is plenty of research out there about remote working (though none that covers the scope of our current situation of course). Given the volume of the information, research and received wisdom (and homespun self help) out there we thought that it might be useful to point to some factors in the literature that may be worth taking into consideration.
Over the coming weeks we will be conducting our own research to validate (or challenge) the findings here, so plenty more on this to come. For now here is a quick synopsis of the points we will be digging into and a full reference list so you can read at your own leisure.
There is no one right answer. Context is really, REALLY important.
In an extensive review of existing literature on remote working Allen, Golden & Shockley (2015) concluded with four key points.
The extent of telecommuting matters; trade-offs exist and must be considered (e.g., employee productivity/satisfaction may increase, but co-worker relationships may suffer); there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and therefore aspects of the individual’s profile, job suitability and organisational support (including supervisor/manager-individual relationships) must be carefully considered; and that widespread endorsement of remote working practices can play a role in more inclusive policies (e.g., for those with disabilities).
Key factors are person, job and manager characteristics, plus individual perception of job suitability.
Another recent, comprehensive review of the existing literature on remote working – Beauregard, Basile & Canonico (2019) – also concluded that the key factors were person, job and manager characteristics in effective remote working. But also, that individual perceptions of job suitability matter.
They argue that there are important contextual elements or job-related idiosyncrasies that can determine whether a job is more or less suitable to effective remote working, and these are difficult to generalise. Therefore, it is at the individual perceptual level that the most reliable predictions can be made, as opposed to general job characteristics.
This may also support flexible remote working policies where there is a high-degree of task variety, as some tasks may be much better performed away from the office, where there is less distraction for example.
Job interdependence, complexity and required social support all matter for performance – but maybe not as much as you think
Based on an analysis of a large sample (N = 273) of remote workers and their supervisors Golden & Gajendran (2019) found that:
The less interdependent the job, the more suitable for effective homeworking. However, whether WFH or in a central location had no negative impact on performance for highly interdependent jobs.
Job complexity matters. The more complex the job the more suitable for remote working. For jobs of low complexity, performance was unaffected by telecommuting. However, positive association was found with the extent of remote working and performance for those in jobs of higher complexity.
Social support matters. When the requirement in a role for social support is high no effect on performance was found, however in roles where this requirement is low then telecommuting is found to have benefits for performance.
Job interdependence does matter for job satisfaction
In an earlier study, Golden & Veiga (2005) had found that task interdependence matters for job satisfaction when remote working. Those with highly interdependent jobs report a small increase in job satisfaction. Those with less interdependence have a higher increase, and this difference increases with the extent of remote working.
Objective Criteria most important for performance
In a study of 85 telecommuters Virick, DaSilva & Arrington (2010) found that when perceived performance outcome orientation (the extent to which objective criteria are used to evaluate performance outcomes) is high, job satisfaction is the same regardless of how much people telecommute. However, when it is perceived that objective criteria are not in use, then job satisfaction is highest when people telecommute to a moderate extent, rather than too little or too much.
In the current situation, for many employees this is a period of working solely from home or in a distributed manner, and the option to select the extent (number of days) that they want to work remotely does not exist. This means that the use of objective criteria for evaluating performance outcomes wherever possible are incredibly important.
This importance is amplified by the fact that remote working makes it difficult to observe an individual’s behaviours. This means that behavioural competency based evaluations have a much more limited utility. Where objective criteria are used, or where individuals are appraised on their work “output” then there is increased faith in the fairness of the method being employed
We have questions around face to face interaction – lots of them
One implication could be for organisations to consider whether there are jobs or roles where objective criteria for evaluating performance outcomes do not exist. If so, there may be an opportunity here for supervisors to offer regular feedback to telecommuting individuals in such roles, or taking one step further back, to determine the extent to which such employees perceive that they are receiving adequate feedback in the current situation.
The absence of face-to-face interaction (for those working only from home) may anyway mean less opportunity to give and receive feedback from others – are there opportunities for employees to still connect online and give/receive the feedback they need in order to work effectively? Are people comfortable giving and receiving feedback outside of a face-to-face interaction or would they gain from training and support on the best ways of doing this? What is “face-to-face” in the context of distributed working? Can we consider video conferencing a reasonable proxy or do it’s limitations negate some of the benefits?
Extensive working from home and the use of technology to connect and accomplish work does bring up these considerations on specific training and support that home-workers could benefit from.
Interpersonal bond and trust are fundamental to knowledge sharing and organisational effectiveness
Using self-report survey data gathered from teleworkers working in a global technology company, Golden & Raghuram (2010) analysed a matched sample of 226 responses.
The authors found that both trust and interpersonal bonds were positively related to knowledge sharing. These results suggest that having a trusting relationship within one’s work unit (with peers and supervisor) is important, as is having attachment and cohesion with one’s co-workers, for knowledge sharing propensity within a telework context.
If people are to solely work remotely then each organisation needs to find ways to replace relationship and trust building that has largely happened face to face previously.
Setting clear expectations works both ways – boundary setting for segmentation/integration is individual and important.
Beauregard & Basile (2016) found that individuals develop strategies for telecommuting that align with their individual preferences for segmentation or integration. Those with stronger segmentation preferences are more likely to enact stronger boundaries between work and home life, whereas those with integration preferences are more likely to have weaker or more permeable boundaries.
The research involving interviews with 40 employees working from home to varying extents found that teleworkers use a variety of strategies (physical, temporal, behavioural and communicative) to recreate boundaries similar to those found in office environments.
Those with greater levels of job autonomy and control find it easier to set boundaries for themselves
The same authors suggest that while teleworkers can generally develop strategies that align boundaries to their preferences for segmentation or integration, employees who have greater job autonomy and control are better able to do so.
This finding suggests that it is also important to consider not only people’s boundary preferences, but also whether they are able to enact these preferences. While to some extent enactment in a remote working context could depend on environmental factors (example, is there space that the employee could dedicate to office working at home that is free from noise and distraction?).
Other aspects of boundary enactment could be more role/organisation dependent – for example, is there a cultural expectation for people to respond to work communications outside the usual working hours? Or does the work environment support setting up stronger boundaries for those who prefer doing so?
Another role/organisation factor that could determine boundary enactment, as indicated by the authors of this paper is the degree of autonomy or control that an individual has with their role.
Perceived autonomy create benefits for organisations and employees
In line with the above, the meta-analysis, Gajendran and Harrison (2007) concluded that perceived autonomy appeared to be one of the principal mechanisms through which remote working has its positive attitudinal and behavioural effects. For example, perceived autonomy seemed to be the mediator or intervening mechanism through which telecommuting had its positive impact on job satisfaction.
The key consideration here for organisations is the extent to which employees perceive that they have autonomy in various aspects of their roles. Could employees be given more flexibility in scheduling their work, or perhaps be given more autonomy in determining the ways or methods they use to complete work?
There is a lot to take in here, and we still have a lot of questions (so will be reading and researching more) our first step will be to try and validate these findings through our own research. We will share this with you as soon as we are able and dig further into the topics raised above in view of our findings.
In the meantime, if there is anything in particular you would like us to look into please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.