Contagion of off-site work drains the company office of its value and appeal, new study finds(1)
May 19, 2017
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When few people from a team work in the office, no point in coming in
When Yahoo's CEO banned working from home not long ago, what made the edict especially controversial was that telework is widely viewed as the ultimate win-win proposition – good for workers enjoying increased autonomy and good for companies benefiting from a happier workforce and reduced office costs.
While the abundant research on this trend has focused largely on how off-site workers have fared, a recent paper argues that there has been "a notable absence of studying the on-site office itself." Probing this issue through interviews or surveys of more than 600 employees of a large high-tech firm, the new research makes an unsettling discovery: the strongest predictor of people’s working off-site is that others are working off-site, as increasing migration from the company office drains it of its traditional value and appeal.
In the words of the paper in the fall 2015 issue of the journal Academy of Management Discoveries, working off-site is "contagious and can spread through the organization [until] the nature of the organizational facility changes from having distributed individuals and groups to having a distributed workforce. What defines this tipping point is the lack of enough physically present co-workers to motivate individuals to come to the office."
The paper's authors, Kevin W. Rockmann of George Mason University and Michael G. Pratt of Boston College, write that they found this surprising "because most extant literature suggests that individuals choose to work off-site primarily for better work-life balance and/or because they believe it will increase their productivity." Whatever validity there is to this thinking, they argue that it misses the extent to which co-workers "provide important opportunities for social interaction ...As the number of distributed workers reaches a certain point, the social motivation becomes very difficult to fulfill."
Indeed, "people still appear to desire something like a traditional office," the professors write. "In our study even people who worked largely off-site still missed the social and work benefits of the old office...Workers who would normally work on-site decided to work off-site rather than face an office empty of relevant people."
In sum, "once a certain number of individuals work off-site, everyone is isolated."
This insight leads the professors to wonder about the high level of job satisfaction commonly attributed to teleworkers. "Are people who leave really satisfied or simply less miserable than those who remain?" they ask. "While those off-site might experience greater job satisfaction against the [on-site] baseline, that increase may simply reflect the fact that the baseline level has dropped."
The paper’s findings emerge from a two-part study of employees at a large U.S.-based, high-tech multinational. In the words of the paper, the company "allows employees to work from an organizational facility of their choice...With few exceptions employees are free to determine their own location of work [and] many employees took advantage of this policy by working for at least some of their time off-site."
The research began with in-person interviews of 29 company personnel in a California division that mostly provides IT services, nine who worked off-site one day a week or less, 10 who did so between two and four days, and 10 who did so full-time. Among the eye-opening comments the professors encountered were these:
■ “I can come in on some days and never see anybody on my team that is local because they are usually working at home or [are on business] trip” Or, along similar lines, “You come in and find out everyone else is working at home and you are the only one in the office then.”
■ “Being remote makes it hard to have the spontaneous dynamic interactive discussions in the hallway…Because people are spread out and working from home, we don’t have a sense of team…that we might have had in the old traditional organization.”
■ “Whenever [my supervisor] needed something, he could just toss it over the wall, and I can help him with it. That helps me get more opportunities [to] brainstorm with him and get that visibility. But if I was [off-site] that wouldn’t happen.”
■ “It’s not as friendly to come to work now. It’s a lot more just work.”
■ “I find I get lonely, you know. You can only yak at your cats for so long.”
On the basis of their interviews, the professors developed surveys that they administered to two groups – 242 employees in the same California division and 386 randomly chosen workers from units all across North America, a diverse mix from administration, finance, engineering, and technical support.
The surveys asked employees how much of their work time was spent off-site and why they chose this option. Employees in the California division were presented with six reasons, any or all of which they could denote: 1) it helps me manage my work and family demands; 2) it will likely facilitate my career progression; 3) it makes my job more satisfying; 4) it allows me to get more work done; 5) few people, if any, from my team work in the office much, so I do not benefit from coming in; and 6) my manager does not work in the office much, so I do not benefit by coming in. In addition to these six reasons, the group of 386 was offered a seventh: I am a member of a virtual or global team.
In both samples, individuals offered multiple reasons for working off-site, with all but the second reason being well represented in both samples. What stood out about the fifth reason ("few people, if any, from my team work in the office much, so I do not benefit from coming in") was that it was designated by those who spent the greatest portion of their time working off-site, so that it emerged as the strongest reason for doing so even if not the reason indicated most frequently.
Prof. Rockmann notes that, in the national sample, survey respondents who indicated this to be a reason spent, on average, 72% of their work time off-site; in contrast, those who did not designate it spent only 27% of their work time off-site. None of the other reasons designated by respondents, he says, was as strongly related to the actual amount of time people chose to work away from the company office.
Although the authors do not investigate the overall effect that the increasing amount of off-site work has had on the performance of the company under study, they believe their findings expose a downside to this trend that deserves to be taken seriously. "In the time period during which this study was concluded," they write, "it was clear that the organization was so far down the road of distributed work that there was no easy way to get everyone back in the office." Such a dilemma could create havoc for firms that seek to realize savings by reducing office space, a widely touted benefit of off-site working.
"At the very least, off-site work is not the win-win situation it's widely considered to be," Prof. Pratt adds. "Companies that permit employees to decide where they work should be aware that this practice can take on a life of its own and should make sure they have the means to bring teams together – in person and face-to-face – as often as needed.”
The paper, entitled "Contagious Off-Site Work and the Lonely Office: The Unintended Consequences of Distributed Work," is among the research published in the fall 2015 issue of Academy of Management Discoveries, a new journal dedicated to exploring management issues at ground level. The Academy of Management, with almost 20,000 members in 112 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, and Academy of Management Annals.