What Science Tells Us About Telecommuting

Topic(s): job satisfaction, wellness, work environment, work-life balance
Publication: Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2015)
Article: How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings
Authors: Tammy D. Allen, Timothy D. Golden, and Kristen M. Shockley
Reviewed by: Lia Engelsted

With the increasing accessibility of technology and mobile connectivity, employees are no longer confined to their offices, and because of this, telecommuting is on the rise. Telecommuting—a term coined in the 1970s—has gained popularity over the decades and researchers and the scientific community have followed suit. A new article by Allen, Golden, and Shockley (2015) reviews the extant literature on telecommuting and clarifies what research supports regarding telecommuting. The authors define telecommuting as the practice of working away from a central location (usually at home) and relying on technology to interact and stay connected.

RESEARCH ON TELECOMMUTING AND WORK-RELATED OUTCOMES

 Job Satisfaction: Employees who telecommute a moderate amount report higher job satisfaction compared to those who do not telecommute or those who extensively telecommute. Specifically, telecommuting is positively related to employee job satisfaction up to approximately 15 hours per week. After 15 hours of remote work, satisfaction plateaus (perhaps due to the lack of social interaction). However, there are factors that influence the relationship between telecommuting and job satisfaction, such as job role, individual characteristics (such as need for autonomy or need for order), work-family conflict, and coworker relationship quality.

Organizational Commitment: There is a positive (but small) relationship between organization commitment and telecommuting. Research has examined the predictors of organizational commitment and found that quality relationships with coworkers and supervisors, social support, inclusive coworker behavior, and types of communication all strengthening the organizational benefit of telecommuting.

Work Stress: Additionally, telecommuting has a negative relationship with work-role stress and work exhaustion. It is theorized that control and increased autonomy (or the extent to which a job allows the independence, freedom, and choice over work schedule, priorities, and tasks) are the psychological mechanisms that reduce stress while telecommuting.

Performance and Career Outcomes: Telecommuting is positively related to supervisor-rated or objectively measured job performance, including both task performance (the main parts of the job) and contextual performance (going beyond formal requirements). There are mixed findings in terms of wage growth and career progression for individuals who telecommute. Some studies have found evidence for lower wage growth in telecommuters while others have found that telecommuting does not impact salary growth or perceived career prospects. Additional research is needed on telecommuting’s effect on wage and career potential.

Withdrawal Behavior: Telecommuting is associated with less turnover and less absenteeism. While there is limited experimental research exploring telecommuting and turnover rates, quasi-experimental research suggests that employees with greater flexibility or those who work in Results Only Work Environments (ROWE) are less likely to leave.

Organizational-Level Benefits: The proportion of employees who participate in work-from-home programs is positively linked to operating income, or firm profit. While true, random-assignment experiments are rare, one study found that the employees at a Chinese call center who were assigned to telecommute were more productive, satisfied, less likely to leave, and less likely to be promoted than those working in the office. Additional experimentally manipulated studies (although not randomly assigned) have found that telecommuters were more productive than traditional workers, based on quantity and quality of work.

 MAKING TELECOMMUTING A SUCCESS

 While research highlights many benefits of telecommuting, there are a considerable number of factors that must be considered to make telecommuting a success.  Telecommuting research finds that the extent or frequency in which individuals telecommute results in different work outcomes. For instance, moderate telecommuting (2-3 days a week) is associated with greater job satisfaction, greater organizational commitment, and decreased intent to leave the organization.

More extensive telecommuting, alternatively, is linked to lower quality coworker relationships, less work-family conflict (although not necessarily family-work conflict), greater organizational commitment, enhanced relationship quality with leaders, and higher professional isolation (resulting in lower job performance).

There are also a number of work characteristics that impact the effectiveness of telecommuting:

  • The nature of work or the job role (certain industries and jobs, such as professionals and managers, are more likely to telecommute).
  • Autonomy and schedule control increase telecommuting effectiveness because they allow individuals to manage their time and approach towards accomplishing tasks.
  • Task interdependence makes telework less productive because individuals must rely on others to perform tasks.
  • The quality of workplace relationships can be impacted by working away from the office.
  • Professional and social isolation is cited as one of the biggest challenges for telecommuters.
  • Telecommuting can reduce knowledge sharing and innovation due to the physical separation and lack of face-to-face interaction.

Additionally, research has examined other individual differences that impact telecommuting outcomes, such as gender, segmentation preference (which means either integrating or segmenting work and family roles), planning or structuring behavior, and self-regulatory skills. Research also demonstrates that supportive management and organizational culture, as well as technology tools high in social richness are necessary for telecommuting effectiveness.

COMMUNITY AND SOCIETAL IMPLICATIONS

Lastly, research reveals the positive impact that telecommuting has on society at large, including reduced traffic congestion and emissions, continuity of business operations during emergencies, increased work opportunities (for disabled or workers living in rural locations), and stronger social ties to family and neighbors.

Long story short: When telecommuting is implemented correctly, it can increase employee job satisfaction and productivity.