When it comes to telecommuting, a multi-faceted approach is key, report suggests

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A scientific review of past research suggests that telecommuting involves a trade-off between certain benefits and drawbacks. While remote work may increase employee productivity, it can also harm workplace relationships and lead to social isolation. The review was published by the Association for Psychological Science.

Since the concept was first named in the 1970s, telecommuting has only been on the rise and continues to offer key advantages for society. Virtual work offers parents the opportunity to care for children at home and allows vital services to continue in emergency situations like the COVID-19 disease outbreak.

Much scientific research has weighed in on the advantages and disadvantages of telecommuting, but with inconsistent results. A review by Allen and colleagues provides a detailed overview of these findings and offers recommendations for workplaces opting to telecommute.

One theme that arose from the researchers’ analysis of past literature was that remote work is most beneficial when practiced in moderation. Their overview of the findings suggests that the frequency of telecommuting has an impact on workplace outcomes, especially when it comes to job satisfaction and co-worker relationships.

“The research overall suggests that telecommuting may be most beneficial in terms of organizational outcomes when it is practiced to a moderate degree. That is, a balance of face-to-face and virtual contact may be optimal,” the authors say.

“Similar to the general notion regarding the appropriate dosage for medication, finding the right amount of time to telecommute may be the key to producing desired outcomes,” they add.

The researchers also stress the importance of acknowledging that virtual work involves a trade-off between positive and negative outcomes. For example, remote work may support employee productivity, while simultaneously harming the quality of workplace relationships.

The authors explain that while advancements in technology can help organizations promote virtual communication, certain social behaviors cannot be replicated outside the office. “Although enhancing the social richness of communication systems can increase the effectiveness of planned interactions, they do not remedy the loss of the random “watercooler” conversations that occur among workers who are collocated,” the authors say.

The researchers also discuss how telecommuting might change the very fabric of society, suggesting two possibilities. “Telecommuting may individualize society to a great extent, contributing to a breakdown in social norms. On the other hand, stronger ties to family and neighbors may replace workplace ties.”

When it comes to the impact on family, past research fails to show that telecommuting is effective in alleviating work-family conflict. Researchers suggest that a “blurring of the boundary” between work and family may cause difficulties in achieving a healthy balance.

The authors stress the need for workplaces to adopt a “multi-faceted” approach to telecommuting. They explain that the success of telecommuting appears to depend not only on employee qualities, like self-regulation skills and level of autonomy but that it also depends on certain aspects of management, such as support from supervisors.

As for future research, the authors note that it would be valuable to investigate the impact of telecommuting on employee health, discussing the importance of an at-home ergonomic workstation and the possible drawback of decreased body movement when working at home.

The study, “How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings”, was authored by Tammy D. Allen, Timothy D. Golden, and Kristen M. Shockley.