George Mason University

News at Mason

Teleworking — And Its Effects — Can Be Contagious, Study Finds

November 20, 2014

By Jennifer Kleiner

Kevin Rockmann

Kevin Rockmann

Working offsite, whether it be from home, a client’s location, or another work location, is more and more the norm among various organizations—from Fortune 100 companies to government agencies and higher education. The increase in teleworking can be attributed to a variety of factors, from aiding in managing work and family demands to reducing administration costs for offices.

While most managers think in terms of how teleworking will affect the person working offsite and the advantages it brings, many do not consider how offsite work may yield unintended costs as it changes the experience for those in the office.

George Mason University management professor Kevin Rockmann admittedly did not give much thought to this aspect in his original research on the subject of teleworking, which began as a study on the employee-organizational relationship and how teleworkers kept contact with others working at the office and to what degree they felt isolated from others. Rockmann, along with Michael Pratt of Boston College, studied a large high-tech Fortune 100 company on the forefront of using distributed work.

As they began their study, they made an unusual discovery that altered the course of their research. Although previous research on this topic suggests that offsite workers should feel more isolated than those onsite, Rockmann found that when distributed work becomes the norm, those in office feel a very similar level of social isolation—if not more.

“Our research changed when we realized that everyone in this organization felt isolated to some degree,” explains Rockmann, who is also the associate dean of students at the George Mason School of Business. “That is, so many individuals telework or work in other locations that the office itself became a very lonely place to be. Yes, there are people working there, but not necessarily the people you are teamed with.”

It was this last piece that was key; this aspect of teamwork is more crucial to the office environment than most may realize. If everyone is working from home, there are fewer brainstorming conversations and occasions to socialize, such as lunch outings and birthday celebrations. While these occasions may seem inconsequential, they may play a major factor in motivation to work in the office or elsewhere.

Most assume that the reason for working offsite primarily stems from flexibility in when and where work is performed and to balance multiple demands, but the findings from Rockmann’s research suggest that the most significant reason for not coming into the office may simply be because no one else is there. That is, while teleworkers actively seek the benefits of being onsite, they would be willing to come to the office if they knew their co-workers would be there.

One implication of this finding is that distributed work is contagious in that once it begins in an organization it tends to spread among the employees. Rockmann recommends that management give serious consideration to how flexible work policies affect those not only working offsite but also working onsite and whether this supports the goals of the organization.

For the Fortune 100 company studied, there are clear advantages to their culture of distributed work, one being that they are able to employ approximately 100,000 workers located in far-flung locations around the world. However, it is crucial for management to be aware that individuals are not only attentive but also responsive to what others are doing. So much so that knowing whether one’s co-workers were going to be in the office was found to be the best predictor of one’s work location choice in Rockmann’s study.

“The hope is that managers begin to think about distributed work not as an attribute of one specific worker, but rather as an attribute of the entire unit,” he says. “That is, letting one individual telework not only impacts that individual, but it impacts every individual that person works with. Let everyone do this and it changes the nature of the office itself. It’s not necessarily universally good or bad for organizations, it could be either depending on what the organization is trying to accomplish.”

This article originally appeared on the School of Business website.