Telecommuting Isn't for Everyone (Or Every Job)

It can't be the worst if you have a puppy. (Photo: Walter Rumsby on Flickr)

Telecommuting, homeworking, the virtual office or whatever you want to call it is a big deal these days. MNN is full of articles about it, noting studies that conclude that Telecommuters aren’t isolated and unproductive and how people are Working from home and loving it. So it was surprising to see this headline in Fusion: It’s official: Working from home is the worst. They say it’s official because there is a meta-study published in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science that asks How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings. But if you read the study, it’s not so simple.

For instance, the study notes that telecommuter satisfaction “plateaus at higher levels of telecommuting (around 15.1 hours per week). The explanation may lie in the social and professional isolation that telecommuters face when telecommuting frequently. This lack of social interaction may offset any gains in job satisfaction afforded by other benefits associated with telecommuting.”

However this information is based on studies done in 2005 and 2006, and much has changed on the social interaction front since then. Everything from texting to Slack to Google Hangouts has changed the way people react in business and socially. People now communicate electronically when they're in the same room. Back then, there was pretty much email and a phone call. Yet Casey Tolan of Fusion writes:

...despite the panoply of tools that facilitate remote work, communicating digitally will always be less efficient than talking face-to-face. If I want to ask my editor about an edit while working from home, I have to write an email or message him, wait for him to see it and respond, and then respond again if I have any questions. If we’re right across the office, I can swivel my chair over and talk about it right away.

Really? In our virtual office I can ping my editor on Skype and get an answer in the time it takes him to swivel his chair and say “Excuse me.” And I've got it in writing. Sorry Casey, that's so 2005.

home office
My home office while doing this post. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The study notes that social isolation is a challenge for those who telecommute:

Telecommuters mentioned that they missed the idle conversations in the hallway and other informal conversations that result in learning and knowledge sharing.... Moreover, out of a variety of communication methods (e.g., telephone, e-mail, instant messaging, etc), employees reported that face-to-face interaction is most important for maintaining workplace friendships.

This may well be true. However I think this is changing rapidly, and for many, our electronic relationships are becoming as important as the face-to-face ones. Yes, the study does note that the relationships we develop at work are important. But one size does not fit all.

Work is a major source of connection with others and a way by which individuals fulfill the need to belong. Coworkers are a source of social support and help reinforce work-role identity. Special efforts may need to be made to sustain work-role identities with coworkers and supervisors, particularly among individuals who telecommute extensively. However, it is also important to consider that those who self-select to work from home may prefer working alone. Individuals may find ways to cope through identifying other means of social connection.

In the end, the study actually makes no conclusions, simply saying that there are widespread benefits to telecommuting, but there are potential drawbacks as well. “Telecommuting arrangements bring to the forefront the notion that work is no longer a place but what you do, and new ways of working are likely to continue.” Nowhere do they say or imply that “It’s the worst.”

Back at Fusion, Tolan doesn’t like where things are going.

Co-workers will interact only in virtual spaces and over sterilizing tech platforms. There will be no water cooler, no spontaneous meetings, no ad hoc projects. We will all just be lines in each others’ Google calendars and names in each others’ Slack channels. And while we will have earned some cost savings for our companies, we will have lost an essential part of work: the sense of belonging.

I wonder how many people, particularly in the media world, have a real sense of belonging anymore in these times of change. I wonder if his real water cooler is any better than my virtual one shared with other writers and editors, where we talk about the Blue Jays and sauerkraut.

And finally, I wonder how many of the problems of the conventional office are being conveniently ignored: the often toxic relationships that can develop among co-workers. The endless meetings. The long commutes and terrible lunches.

There are indeed downsides to working from home, there are some for whom it isn’t suitable, and there are jobs where it just doesn’t work. But it certainly isn’t "Official", it isn't “the worst”, and it isn’t going away.