Countless management articles tout the benefits of working remotely, but a new study uncovers a surprising downside to this increasingly popular perk: The people left behind at the office hate it.
As it turns out, walking past a sea of empty desks every day can take a toll on motivation and morale. Boston College management and organization professor Michael Pratt, one of the study’s authors, says he was “pretty shocked” at the findings.
A primary problem is that a scattered workforce makes it harder to have the kind of casual conversations that can lead to brainstorming. “There was not a lot of spontaneous idea sharing, [which] hindered productivity,” Pratt says. Although people who work from home tend to complain that the office is too distracting to get work done, the reverse isn’t true: People who worked in a half-empty office didn’t find that fewer distractions made them more productive.
Since it can be hard to re-create that off-the-cuff water-cooler or coffee break-chatter, many of the companies that thrive while having a high percentage of telecommuters make it a point to have regular in-office days when everyone is present. "It is important to remember that onsite-offsite should be viewed not as a dichotomy but as a continuum,” Pratt says. “Attempt to find or organize a time when people may be in the office.”
If you're one of the ones who dutifully shows up at the workplace every day, here are some ways to keep your telecommuting colleagues from killing your motivation.
Acknowledge that telecommuting isn't for everyone. Sure, there can be some resentment if mail-handling or other mundane tasks that can only be done on-site end up on your desk. Head off feelings of envy by reminding yourself that just as working at the office isn’t ideal for some people, working from home isn’t the best fit for others. If you have young kids or don’t have a decent work-at-home setup, Pratt points out, the office might be your best bet. And there's a benefit to being able to step out the door and leave work at work, rather than knowing that the “office” is just down the hall or up a flight of stairs.
Make sure to schedule face-time. Pratt notes that the lack of regular communication is a frequent source of tension between remote and on-site workers. It can be especially tough if your boss or someone with whom you have to collaborate or communicate with on a regular basis is rarely in the office. That's where regularly scheduled meetings via Skype or videoconference can come in handy.
Broaden your internal network. Even if you're diligent about checking in with your remote colleagues, there’s no substitute for the everyday social interaction. To avoid feelings of isolation, make friends with people outside your work group or department, Pratt suggests. "Onsite workers can also reach out to those they do not know in the office to meet some social needs," he says. Since a lot of workplaces are divided pretty rigidly into divisions, this might take some proactive effort on your part—and don't be afraid to recruit HR in your efforts.
For instance, book a conference room for lunch on a weekly or twice-weekly basis, and put the word out via email, instant message or your company Intranet encouraging fellow employees to gather. "It may be that these off-team friendships may not only meet social needs, but may eventually prove helpful to work-related demands,” he points out. You never know when it might come in handy to have someone in IT or accounting on your short list.