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3Qs: Productivity gains, but at a cost

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In recent years, globalization and advanced technologies have increasingly given companies the ability to allow employees to work remotely. So how has this trend changed the game for businesses and the lives of their workers? We talked to Jay Mulki, associate professor of marketing in the College of Business Administration, who is conducting research in this area and recently presented at a conference sponsored by Care.com in New York City.

How has telecommuting changed the game both for businesses and their employees?

Over the years, advances in communication technology and globalization of business have changed the traditional workplace. You can now be anywhere and be at work. At IBM, for example, work is passed along person-to-person from Hong Kong to Bombay to Ireland to Los Angeles. Companies realize that you don’t have to have a traditional workplace. This is becoming more and more common, and many companies are saving on office space and travel expenses this way.

However, there are some issues with working remotely. Electronic communication is not as rich as face-to-face conversation, given much of communication is nonverbal.  In addition, employees are finding it to difficult to disengage from work.

What has your research indicated about remote workers?

As expected, remote work and telecommuting increased productivity for the business and provided flexibility for the employee. But we’ve found people often have difficulty getting away from work, and as a result, the work-family balance may actually be getting worse. Some people can manage it, while others can’t and often experience conflicts in their work and life. In the second part of our study, we are actually looking at whether the work-life balance is real or a myth, and how managers can help employees achieve this balance. We’ve conducted the surveys and are currently analyzing the results.

It’s a challenge for companies to help create this balance. Smart managers are directing their people to have the discipline to start and stop work at specific times. They are also encouraging them to set up their workspace as if they are in an office setting. There are times when all employees will put in extra time, but we’ve found that some teleworkers feel obligated to work more hours and worry they can’t disengage from work.  They are feeling that the work is always there.

How does technology play a role in this balance?

Technology is helping in the sense that it brings people together. But our point is that while it brings them together, it also creates problems. We carry smartphones everywhere we go. But for virtual employees it can be worse because there is no other escape outlet for them. There are no easy solutions, but many managers are trying to address them and build routines for their employees to maintain this balance.