No Place Like Home? Exploring the Myths of Telecommuting

<p>John Veiga, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Management in the School of Business. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer</p>
John Veiga, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Management in the School of Business. Photo by Frank Dahlmeyer

Telecommuting is generally defined as “the practice of working at home and interacting with employers, clients, and fellow workers through communication technology.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, more than 20 million Americans now telecommute on a semi-regular basis, a trend that increases each year. Given its growing popularity, it is not surprising that many commonly held beliefs surrounding telecommuting have arisen, such as:

  • Telecommuting enhances job satisfaction, and
  • Telecommuting enhances the work-family balance.

But are these beliefs valid? Common sense suggests that working from home eliminates the stress of the morning and evening commute, provides a comfortable work environment, and allows more work schedule flexibility. However, much of the research on the benefits of telecommuting is inconclusive. Similar disagreement exists in the literature on work-family balance.

To help resolve these discrepancies, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor John Veiga of the School of Business Management Department, in collaboration with UConn colleague Professor Zeki Simsek and Professor Timothy Golden of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have conducted research that offers some surprising insights into the complexities of telecommuting.

Veiga and his colleagues analyzed a sample of professional-level employees to determine the effect of telecommuting on job satisfaction. The study focused on the in-office vs. out-of-office time of experienced telecommuters, rather than typical comparisons between telecommuters and non-telecommuters.

They contacted a random sample of 1,000 professional-level employees from a large, high-tech firm that encourages telecommuting. Filtering the responses down to 321, they used regression analysis on the results of a web-based survey. Respondents spanned a wide variety of jobs within the company, including marketing, sales, accounting, programming, engineering, and others.

The findings revealed a curvilinear relationship between the extent of telecommuting and job satisfaction. In other words, job satisfaction initially increases as the extent of telecommuting increases; however, this satisfaction tapers off at higher levels of telecommuting and eventually reaches a plateau. In addition, the slope of this curve is strongly affected by other factors, such as the nature of the telecommuter’s job.

For example, employees who need to rely on one another to perform their tasks are less likely to gain job satisfaction from extensive telecommuting. This moderating influence also applies to workers who have less autonomy in performing their jobs. In both these cases, extensive absence from the workplace, leading to less face-to-face interaction and feedback, can lead to frustration. The lesson is simply, if you regularly depend upon others to do your job or have limited job discretion, extensive telecommuting could put your sense of job satisfaction at serious risk.

The findings provide a valuable perspective for corporate managers to consider by challenging the assumption that the more employees telecommute, the more satisfied they are, irrespective of the nature of their jobs.

In a second study, Veiga and his colleagues examined the relationship between telecommuting and work-family balance. It has become a workplace axiom that by working at home, employees are better able to balance the conflicting demands of job and family. But is that true?

For this study, more than 1,200 professional-level employees were surveyed, and 454 respondents were selected for analysis. These employees had, on average, been telecommuting for four years and worked from home 20 hours per week.

The findings showed that although the telecommuters’ work interfered less with their family demands, family demands interfered more heavily with work. In fact, the more individuals worked from home, the greater the demands of family became. For example, family members who would be reluctant to interrupt someone in the workplace appeared more inclined to interrupt the same individual working at home, even for relatively trivial requests.

Moreover, the telecommuter seemed more apt to honor these interruptions, resulting in lost productivity. The research, for example, asked this question, “If I am working from home during the week and an ailing parent needs to be driven for regular medical visits, would I feel comfortable saying no?”

As with the job satisfaction study, job autonomy also helps offset family demands. In fact, telecommuters with greater autonomy reported far less conflict between family and work demands compared to those with less job autonomy. Not surprisingly, for telecommuters with larger households, family demands seriously conflicted with work demands.

In their research, Veiga and his colleagues deconstruct some of the conventional wisdom concerning the benefits of telecommuting. Their findings suggest better ways to manage this growing trend and make clear that, when it comes to telecommuting, one size does not fit all employees.