“Work is a profoundly social activity. The design problem of cyberspace has thus become how to develop information systems that support work socially.”— Prof. David Hakken, SUNY Institute of Technology
The Internet is more versatile than any other interactive medium available to us today. It enables us to communicate with friends or with total strangers, with individuals or with large groups, using our real names or remaining totally anonymous. The Internet is not simply a medium, like the telephone or mail system — it is also a place, a virtual community where people meet, engage in discourse, become friends, fall in love, and develop all of the relationships that are developed in physical communities.
Yet, the very characteristics that make the Internet community unique — physical distance and the potential for anonymity – are the greatest obstacles to its success. Peter Kollock of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Online Community explains, “The key challenges the Internet community will face in the near future are not simply technological, but also sociological: the challenges of social interaction and social organization. This is not to diminish the difficulties of creating new technologies, but rather to emphasize that even these tasks will pale beside the problems of facilitating and encouraging successful online interaction and online communities.”
Nowhere are the social challenges of the Internet so pronounced as in the virtual workplace. More and more companies today rely on telecommuting to reduce overhead costs, increase productivity, and improve employee morale. While technology and communications companies such as AT&T, Pacific Bell, Hewlett Packard, IBM and Cisco Systems have allowed telecommuting for years, financial services firms like Merrill Lynch and Arthur Anderson and retail companies like Levi Strauss, Pepsi Co., and Sears & Roebuck have recently instituted telecommuter-friendly policies as well. Under such policies, the number of telecommuters nationwide has more than doubled this decade, from 4 million people in 1990 to well over 8 million people today.
Yet, despite the fact that more and more companies are allowing their employees to work from home, the popularity of telecommuting has leveled off. More than 40 percent of companies have adopted some sort of telecommuting policy in recent years, but the number of telecommuters still has never risen above 7 to 10 percent of the working population. Surely, this is not due to a slowdown in technological advances that make telecommuting possible. So why has this plateau occurred?
There are several reasons. First of all, many jobs are not conducive to remote work. A large portion of the workforce is comprised of service, retail, and other positions that necessarily require physical presence. Second, many employees continue to work in an office simply because they have always worked in an office and are “path dependant.” The average age of telecommuters is relatively low, suggesting that young workers with less established routines are more likely to work from outside of the office.
But perhaps the most important reason why the number of telecommuters has leveled off — the reason that I will explore in this essay – is that most employees don’t think that telecommuting can deliver the same social satisfaction that working in a “real” office does. While the substantive work may be the same, employees are hesitant to give up the daily interaction with co-workers and supervisors that makes a job enjoyable. Researchers at the School of Business at Indiana University found that,
Despite technological feasibility and cost-effectiveness… home and mobile telecommuting were neither psychologically nor socially attractive to employees… Home telecommuters especially reported difficulties with the home-work boundaries and with social isolation.
By why do potential telecommuters fear isolation? If people can make friends and fall in love over the Internet, why can’t telecommuters forge and maintain meaningful social relationships with their supervisors and co-workers through their companies’ intranets?
Companies blindly accept the notion that the Internet can never serve as a successful platform for human interaction; as a result, corporate support systems for telecommuting employees tend to focus on maximizing “real space” interaction for remote workers. Some companies do this by requiring telecommuting employees to work in the office one or more days per week; others ask employees to work out of satellite offices nearer to their homes; and still others participate in “hoteling” arrangements where telecommuters from several companies who live in one geographic area share a part-time workspace that is available whenever they need the resources — social or otherwise — of a physical office space. Yet, these programs all seek to minimize telecommuter isolation by putting remote workers back in the office. Is this really a solution?
Instead of declaring telecommuting a social failure, companies should focus on using Internet technology to make telecommuting a socially viable work arrangement. Social isolation is not, as some believe, a natural function of on-line work. Rather, telecommuters experience isolation because companies continue to use the Internet as a medium for one-to-one or one-to-many communication, rather than as a place where telecommuters can work, talk with friends and mentors, and feel connected to the social and cultural fabric of the company. In creating such a virtual place for their employees, companies will soon realize that the “old rules” do not apply in the on-line world.
In this paper, I will argue that the primary reason that the telecommuting movement has lost energy in recent years is that companies have not been able to successfully change their business strategies to accommodate the very different social needs of the remote worker. Specifically, companies continue to manage telecommuters in the same way that they manage employees located in their physical offices – with an emphasis on “real space” interaction – so that today’s telecommuters merely experience a distant, detached version of traditional office relationships. This bias towards physical interaction is evident in three aspects of the employment relationship:
- Informal social interaction. Most socializing still takes place at the office, and very few companies create opportunities for casual on-line discourse.
- Collaborative work. Team projects are still carried out in conference room meetings, while telecommuters are given more individual assignments.
- Employer supervision. Managers still rely heavily on personal contact with employees; telecommuting relationships often fail because employees worry that a lack of “face time” with the boss will hinder their professional advancement.
If telecommuting is to flourish, these social barriers must come down. Companies must develop on-line chat-rooms and “virtual water coolers” so that telecommuters can engage in the types of casual discourse that usually take place in the office lunchroom. They must establish virtual project teams so that telecommuters can engage in collaborative work instead of being relegated to the social isolation of individual work. Finally, they must train their managers to effectively supervise employees on-line, and to recognize and reward telecommuters for their contributions.
Facilitating Social Interaction: The Virtual Water Cooler
Perhaps the biggest factor detracting from the popularity of telecommuting is the idea that on-line interaction cannot effectively replace face-to-face contact. Employees and managers alike doubt that they will be able to build the same types of interpersonal connections via Internet that they do in person. This issue is particularly important today, when many people feel a diminished sense of “community belonging” in their own cities, largely because traditional social institutions like town meetings and churches no longer serve as active social environments. People now shop on-line and over the phone, call or e-mail friends instead of visiting, and work long hours away from their homes. The workplace often replaces the town or village as the only real “community” in which people regularly participate. The growing importance of alternative communities, such as workplace and on-line communities, is evidence of “the hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world.” Surely, as the workplace has assumed such primary social importance, telecommuting will not succeed unless it can replicate these social benefits if it is to succeed.
Despite abundant evidence of successful social interaction within on-line communities, many employees still believe that the Internet cannot replicate these social benefits. The popularity of on-line communities, however, suggests that these fears are largely unwarranted. In fact, on-line communities can be extremely successful and socially satisfying to their members when they exhibit “the requisite elements for successful community,” such as “identity persistence, a sophisticated set of rituals…., a record[ed] history of the community, a coherent sense of space, [and] casual interaction caused by the fact that one must ‘walk’ most places.” Some of these elements occur naturally in telecommuting relationships, such as identity persistence (people typically use only their real names) and a recorded history of the community (communications may be recorded as part of team’s project files). But the other elements don’t develop naturally. They must be consciously constructed by the company if they are to exist at all. Technologically speaking, it is quite easy for companies to establish on-line rituals, meeting spaces, and vehicles for casual interaction among employees.
So why don’t these successful on-line communities exist for telecommuters? Because companies fail to create them. 1997 Telecommute America Survey shows that only 29% of telecommuters contact co-workers when they feel isolated; the majority of telecommuters rely on other communities to combat social isolation – they do errands or walk the dog to see their neighbors, call or visit family members, e-mail friends, or chat on-line. The fact that many remote workers e-mail or chat on-line suggests that they do derive social satisfaction from on-line communities – they simply don’t find those on-line communities within their own companies. If telecommuters have to look outside their own company for the basic social interaction that typically accompanies any job, then it is no wonder that telecommuting is perceived as lonely and socially unappealing.
A successful telecommuting program must provide an on-line social network for telecommuters within the company. As Kollock suggests, this network should include both a defined on-line space in which telecommuters can “hang out” and a means for employees to interact casually. Yet, many doubt that such as transformation is possible. Mark Kirsner asks, “Can corporate sites plug into this desire to share information and transform their pages from static brochures to destinations? In short, can they become places where people voluntarily spend their time?”
The answer is yes. Companies with successful telecommuting programs have identified several concrete ways to accomplish the goal of creating an active on-line “community” for their telecommuting workers.
- At Aetna Insurance Co., each telecommuter is assigned a “buddy.” By pairing its workers, Aetna ensures that telecommuters have regular social interaction with other employees, and creates a social network wherein telecommuters develop social relationships with employees they would not otherwise have met.
- Alan Fowler suggests assigning every remote worker an office-based mentor as well, in order to keep telecommuters in touch (via e-mail) with any social developments occurring in the office. Whenever possible, these mentors should be senior employees, so that telecommuters can develop the types of impromptu mentoring relationships that often occur in the workplace.
- IBM has scheduled social events using “chat” technology for its on-line workers, and Arthur Anderson holds informal chatroom “lunches” for its telecommuting employees. These companies have found it necessary to actually schedule social interactions for telecommuters, interactions that usually take place automatically for office-based workers.
- Several successful telecommuting programs provide a “place” where remote workers can go to hang out during breaks, lunch, and other free time. At Cisco, telecommuters congregate in “virtual cubes.” At Merrill Lynch, they go to the “virtual water cooler.” These “places,” which are essentially chatrooms, enable remote workers to communicate with co-workers they’ve never met or worked with, and to enjoy all of the social benefits of a traditional office environment.
- Finally, companies may find that threaded conferences give telecommuters yet another “place” where they can join in an ongoing discourse with co-workers. While threaded discussions may not offer the psychological benefits of live dialogue, they can still keep telecommuters in tune with what’s happening at the company, while at the same time providing them with an opportunity to develop reputations, identify workplace personalities, and make friends. This might be a good option for companies with only a few telecommuting employees, where a “virtual water cooler” room is likely to be empty at any given time.
Company-sponsored programs like these, which create lively social venues for telecommuting workers, can turn remote work into a socially satisfying professional lifestyle. Yet, critics note that employees may be hesitant to communicate freely on a company-monitored network, and may reject the structure of a company-endorsed community. Indeed, research indicates that social interaction on the Internet is typically hindered – not helped – by company involvement; “communities on the Net typically form independent of any corporate sponsorship or influence.” Thus, since co-worker collegiality is hampered when “big brother” is watching, a company’s on-line social venues should offer some way for telecommuters to communicate privately with other employees. Chatrooms and “virtual water coolers” should be left unmonitored by senior employees, and should enable participants to break off into more private, unmonitored conversations. Companies should establish clear policies stating that social interaction between employees will not be recorded or examined by senior management. On-line communities “work best when the monitoring is carried out by the community members themselves rather than by an external authority,” so companies should encourage self-governance among telecommuting employees. Alternatively, John Challenger suggests that social programs for telecommuters can escape the stigma of management-sponsored social events if they are developed through a separate office, that of the “director of socialization, who will be responsible for helping workers connect with each other.”
Clearly, social interaction is an important component of all work arrangements. Companies with telecommuting programs must recognize this and use the technology of the Internet to combat the social isolation experienced by their remote workers. If all companies make a conscious effort to create a fixed “space” that provides social opportunities for telecommuters, telecommuting can be socially satisfying for employees, and more successful in general.
Collaborative Work: Creating Virtual Teams
Companies must also maximize social benefits from telecommuting by enabling telecommuters to work in teams with colleagues. Employees derive social benefits from many different types of office interaction – not just from purely social conversations in the lunchroom or around the water cooler, but also from team-based work projects which enable them to communicate with co-workers throughout the lifespan of a project. Work-related social interaction offers employees the opportunity to observe a wide variety of professional styles, make contacts with people who might advance their careers, and bond with co-workers over mutual professional experiences and interests. These work-related social opportunities are important aspects of the social experience of working, and all too often, they bypass telecommuters completely.
Companies have increasingly satisfied the social and professional needs of their “real space” employees by adopting a team-centered approach to project management, in which “the team unites to complete a task, then disperses when it is finished;” this work model benefits employers and employees alike by generating high-quality work, while at the same time enabling co-workers to develop strong interpersonal bonds. Yet, even as office-based workers are enjoying the social benefits of “team meetings,” telecommuters are simultaneously relegated to the isolation of solitary work in a distant locale. Remote workers are typically given individual assignments to complete from home; if they need to work on team assignments, they must come into the office and meet with co-workers. Even when telecommuters are assigned to office-based teams, the work is often highly individualized. A telecommuter will be given small, discreet assignment to complete alone and bring back to the team; when the task is completed – sometimes before it is even done – the employee is moved to a new team and given another solitary assignment. This system of “farming out” individual assignments to telecommuters is inconsistent with the current real space trend of organizing employees into project teams, but it is not new. David Hakken likens this system of individual, home-based work to the “piece work” that dominated most fields of manufacture before the advent of mass production. He calls it a “neo-feudal labor process.” It is a system which puts telecommuters into physically distant “real spaces” without providing them with an alternative, virtual social space. Yet, there is no reason why today’s home-based work should include only solitary, individual assignments. The technology of the Internet makes it possible for telecommuters to engage in interactive, team-based work from virtually any location. Until companies finally alter their work assignment processes so as to avail telecommuters of the social benefits of team-based work, telecommuting cannot be considered a true success.
The establishment of virtual project teams may be one of the easiest ways to build an on-line community within a company, because it promotes ongoing interaction among telecommuters. As discussed earlier, on-line communities are most successful when their members meet regularly in a “virtual space,” recognize one another’s identities and personalities, and have some record of how other members have behaved in the past. These elements make members of the community “accountable for their actions,” because they know one another personally, and can react accordingly. It seems that there is no better way for telecommuters to experience such ongoing relationships than in virtual project teams, where they work regularly with other telecommuting employees towards a common professional goal.
Researchers at Harvard Business School, led by Professor Dorothy Leonard, conducted a very helpful case study about the benefits and drawbacks of organizing telecommuters into on-line project teams. They studied “virtual teams” at American Management Systems, an international consulting firm with seven thousand employees around the world. While most employees are based in one of the company’s 47 offices, many work from remote locations, either at home or from a client headquarters. Indeed, the researchers found that the most successful virtual teams placed a heavy emphasis on interpersonal relationships and group psychology. At AMS, “virtual teams” were able to build lasting, socially satisfying relationships among telecommuting employees. But these relationships did not evolve naturally, as they do on “real space” teams. On-line managers took an active role in directing the social development of their project teams, organizing scheduled social events and beginning each new project with a “kick-off party” so that team members could get acquainted. Professor Leonard explains:
“Communication technologies can aid in maintaining a team dynamic, but significant thought should be given to how those technologies are managed. There is a temptation to think that technologies such as fax, e-mail, and voice mail can substitute for high-touch management. As this case suggests, successful managers cannot rely on technology alone, but must use it to pay enormous attention to the individual needs of team members.”
Leonard also found that “virtual teams” of telecommuters were as beneficial for companies as they are for the telecommuters themselves. Today, the increasingly global market for business and for professional talent is forcing many companies to “coordinate development activities across geographic boundaries.” As companies do more and more business with foreign companies and foreign employees, virtual teams are becoming a corporate necessity. Furthermore, because the on-line project teams had access to a wide range of technologies, they were often more efficient in their communications and decision-making than “real space” teams. Depending on the complexity of the task, virtual teams opted for different technologies. For simple information exchanges, they used “lean” technologies like e-mail. For brainstorming or conflict resolution, they would choose a “richer” technology like videoconferencing. Because team members were constantly aware of the resources they were devoting to each task, they developed a refined sense of how to communicate and conduct business efficiently as a team. And the blend of “rich” and “lean” technologies together create a string sense of space in which telecommuters can conduct such communications.
Surely, work-related interaction with colleagues constitutes an important part of the social experience of being employed. By sharing a common sense of purpose, members of a “virtual team” can simultaneously forge interpersonal relationships with co-workers and develop a sense of the company’s core values. While telecommuters – like all employees – may continue to do a significant portion of “individual” work, active participation on a project team will enable them to see where their own contributions “fit…. with[in] the drive and direction of the company,” and to enjoy more of the social benefits usually associated with office-based work.
Managing the Virtual Workforce
Inflexibility on the part of managers is one of the greatest institutional barriers to the success of telecommuting in most companies. Supervisors oppose telecommuting initiatives because they fear that they will lose control of their telecommuting employees and lose the ability to monitor company time and resources. “Telecommuting is a power and control issue, not a money issue. Management still perceives it as a risk — a risk they’re scared to take.” At the same time, employees are afraid to make the jump to telecommuting because they fear that physically absence from the office will negatively impact their relationships with supervisors and, in turn, their prospects for promotion. Sociologists observe that “the workplace is still designed to value and reward commitment to the office and being there to prove your worth. The authoritarian, surveillance-type concept of management really hasn’t changed that much.”
Companies are rigidly institutional, and aren’t very receptive to change. Yet, telecommuting will not succeed until employers begin to recognize the differences between on-line and “real space” interaction and change their management strategies to accommodate these differences. When employer-employee relationships move on-line, there is often a shift in the power structure. Formerly hierarchical (or “vertical”) relationships become much more “horizontal.” The use of e-mail encourages more direct communications between junior and senior employees, making once-formal associations more congenial. The Internet breaks down institutional barriers, enabling employees to send messages to their managers without making an appointment or going through a secretary. As a result, employees acquire nearly as much communicative power in the “virtual workplace” as their own managers. The medium naturally fosters individualism.
For many managers, the shift from a hierarchical to a “horizontal” management structure signals a potential problem: managers worry that horizontal relationships will make it more difficult to build consensus and make employees follow orders. Indeed, “unique features of cyberspace make effective conflict management both more important and more difficult.” Because virtual community members often come from diverse geographic, personal, and professional backgrounds, they bring to the table a wide variety of goals and cultural norms; as a result, managers fear that building consensus will be challenging.
Yet, sociologists studying on-line communities have found that just the opposite is true. Virtual communities are far more successful when all members are equally involved in decision-making and self-monitoring. On-line communities are typically unreceptive to authority figures who try to manage “from the top down;” by contrast, virtual communities tend to be highly cooperative when members create and enforce their own rules. The reason for hostility towards on-line authority figures often stems from the fact that the virtual communities are self-evolving; members put a great deal of work and initiative into developing the community, and they (understandably) wish to be full participants in the world they helped to create. Ultimately, then, a “community’s ability to adapt and thrive as an open, goal-directed system depends on member awareness of the program, human resource availability and administration willingness to share power.”
Certainly, not all managers will find it easy to transition into this new, more “horizontal” employer-employee relationship. For this reason, it is essential that companies realize the limitations of their own senior personnel. “The biggest reason people haven’t left the office is because they have employers who aren’t willing to trust them to work from home.” Unless companies carefully select open-minded, telework-friendly managers to supervise telecommuting employees, remote work programs are destined to fail.
Once a company has chosen the right managers to administer a telecommuting program, there are several things that they can to successfully supervise the company’s on-line employees and/or virtual teams:
- Managers should attend their company’s telecommuting training programs, even if they only work in the office. This is standard policy at Merrill Lynch, for it enables supervisors to anticipate and address the Internet-specific problems (social, technological, or otherwise) that telecommuters will encounter in the course of their employment.
- Managers should be responsible for getting to know their employees socially before they start working with them, either by convening in a “virtual social space” or, alternatively, by meeting in real space. Professor Dorothy Leonard of Harvard Business School recommends that supervisors hold one or more “kick-off meetings” before every project in order to develop good manager-employee relationships, build team morale, and heighten the sense of responsibility and involvement felt by each telecommuting employee.
- Some managers should be assigned to supervise only remote workers. Managers with both telecommuting and office-based employees often give more attention to those in the office, forgetting about their virtual employees without the “push” of physical contact. To combat this “out-of-sight, out-of-mind reaction,” make sure that some managers consider remote workers their only responsibility.
- Managers should ensure that every telecommuting employee has the resources to stay involved in the project. This may mean assigning them a team “buddy” who can update them when they miss a meeting, or simply processing their request for videoconferencing software. As the telecommuter’s primary contact at the company, the manager must take on some of the administrative duties that are typically left to staff members under the traditional management hierarchy. Again, only managers who are receptive to such “horizontal” management structures will earnestly agree to take on such responsibilities.
- Managers must learn to consider the amount and quality of an employee’s work, without regard to physical presence. This requires that companies creates a new basis for determining professional advancement, a standard which rewards the quality of an employee’s work product rather than the amount of “face-time” the employee puts in at the office. Managers must assure employees that this new standard will be enforced by giving telecommuters adequate praise for work well done. To this end, managers must come up with new and innovative ways to recognize and reward telecommuters, since traditional office incentive systems have relied heavily on physical rewards like bigger offices, windows, and closer parking spaces.
- Finally, managers must recognize their role as mentors. In many cases they will be one of the junior employee’s only senior contacts within the company, so they should take the responsibility of acting as a positive role model seriously. To this end, managers should ensure that telecommuters’ “virtual space” includes an area for junior and senior employees to casually “bump into” one another and form these types of informal mentoring relationships.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it should serve as a good starting point for companies to begin teaching their managers to effectively supervise employees on-line.
As commerce, entertainment, and information resources all shift onto the Internet, people’s lives also move on-line — and people, in turn, spend less time interacting within their physical communities. Perhaps to fill the void left by this withdrawal, “something akin to community seems to be re-emerging in the workplace.” The social interactions that take place in the workplace are more important today than ever before. Thus, if we ever hope to shift a significant portion of our workforce into on-line work, we must respect the importance of social workplace relationships. The best way for companies to do this is by recognizing that Internet technology is not merely a communication device; it is also a very real space, replete with possibilities for social interaction.
Critics of telecommuting believe that Internet communication will never truly replace face-to-face contact, and to some degree, they’re right. The touch of a keyboard will never take the place of a strong handshake, a hug, or body language. But many of the social benefits of face-to-face interaction can easily be replicated in cyberspace if employers simply learn to utilize Internet technology to their advantage. Companies must adapt their business strategies to create opportunities for casual social interaction among employees, to establish interactive work opportunities for employees (including “virtual teams”), and to develop better on-line supervision and mentoring relationships. Critics of telecommuting should also recognize that on-line employment has the potential to eradicate some very significant drawbacks of face-to-face contact in the workplace. The remote worker is judged and promoted based on his or her work product, not on physical attributes. If more business interactions were conducted on-line, age and race discrimination would be less pervasive. Disabled employees would have easier access to the “virtual workplace” than the physical office. Virtual workers would accommodate the 24-hour nature of the global economy better, and would not waste time and resources commuting to and from the office every day. Not only can telecommuting replicate the most important social benefits of office work, it can also eliminate some of the significant shortcomings of face-to-face interaction.
Telecommuting has long been praised for its non-social advantages, like increased worker productivity and improved work/life balance. By altering business strategies and communication methods to maximize the social benefits of the Internet’s “virtual space,” companies and employees alike can benefit from telecommuting.