The article “Face Time” (The New Yorker, March 18, 2013 edition) by James Surowiecki discusses telecommuting’s downsides by focusing on its interpersonal challenges. For instance, studies find in-person informal and spontaneous interactions are extremely productive, and managers suffer from accurately valuating the work of telecommuters. All hurt telecommuters’ productivity.
Digital communication tends to be very good for planned interactions, like formal meetings. But a lot of the value of working with people comes from all those interactions that you didn’t plan.
And Surowiecki writes:
. . . studies show that managers often view telecommuters, accurately or not, as uncommitted.
Additionally, he found studies showing non-telecommuting employees jealous of telecommuting ones, fostering distrust. Studies find face time remains the most effective way to build relationships, which are extremely critical to innovation and problem solving.
Of course, elimination of telecommuting and mobile workforces is not the solution. Continuing to refine the work model to offset its negative side-effects is the solution. For instance, Surowiecki cites studies indicating that having employees meet in person helps to ward off distrust and increase performance.
Some other solutions include:
- Training managers regarding their inherent biases in evaluating telecommuters’ performances
- Scheduling more in-person meetings but integrating informal networking periods such as breaks, meals, entertainment and activities
- Assigning telecommuters to formal committees, teams and initiatives that have the potential for informal in-person interactions
- Helping telecommuters balance their in-person interactions between new and existing relationships
- Ensuring that office staff know, acknowledge and welcome telecommuters by name when they visit
To date, nothing has replaced the effectiveness of in-person interactions in relationship building. The solution to the nonproductiveness of telecommuters is helping them integrate new modes of communication with old, not choosing one over others.