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Telework May Harm Workers Left At Office, Study Claims

February 1, 2008
A new study on telecommuting has rekindled debate about the pros and potential pitfalls of working remotely.

In January, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced that research from professor Timothy Golden suggests telecommuting may harm workers left behind in the office. In particular, Golden found the greater the prevalence of teleworkers in an office, the less others in the office are to be satisfied with their jobs, with a corresponding decrease in the likelihood they will remain with the company.

Golden’s study focused on a large high-tech firm. It was published last year in the journal Human Relations.

“[I]t may be that with a greater prevalence of teleworkers in a work unit, non-teleworkers may find it less personally fulfilling to conduct their work due to the increased obstacles to building and maintaining effective and rewarding co-worker relationships,” Golden said in a statement.

Backers of telecommuting took issue with the study. Chuck Wilsker, president of the Telework Coalition, said a 2006 study of 13 organizations by his research and advocacy group found that non-telecommuters were either supportive of telework or indifferent.

In a statement, Wilsker’s group also blasted Golden’s study for examining just one company. “We question the validity of his research and quite frankly are surprised that it was released.”

Jessica Otitigbe, a spokeswoman for Troy, New York-based RPI, said Golden would not be available for comment. But in a statement, Otitigbe defended the study. “Professor Golden’s research is methodologically sound, peer-reviewed research published in a very respected journal,” she said. “Naturally this is only one study in one setting, but this is how one builds a body of knowledge in a particular area.”

Telecommuting is growing as a work practice and is now part of the broader mobility trend of employees working in settings that include airports, hotels and cafes. The number of Americans whose employers allow them to work remotely at least one day per month jumped from 7.6 million in 2004 to 12.4 million in 2006, according to a report released last year by professional association WorldatWork.

Golden’s study suggests that a number of factors can temper the negative effect on co-workers of telecommuting. “[M]anagers may be able to help mitigate some of this adverse impact by ensuring greater face-to-face contact between co-workers when employees are in the office, and granting greater job autonomy to accomplish work activities as employees see fit,” he writes.

Gil Gordon, head of a consulting firm focused on telecommuting, concedes that telework arrangements can end up hurting employees remaining at the office. If managers don’t assign tasks smartly, non-telecommuting employees can wind up with more than their share of work, Gordon argues. “That’s a preventable problem,” he says.

Gordon also says he has heard a lot of non-telecommuters say that a less-populous office is less distracting and more productive.

In any event, telecommuting seems likely to keep growing. Telework options are now key to attracting and keeping top workers, Gordon says.

“This really is a talent management and retention and utilization issue,” he says.

—Ed Frauenheim