Telecommuting, once considered a panacea for commuting woes, has been bogged by inconsistent evidence about its benefits. Now, a study in this week’s issue of the American Journal of Applied Psychology shows that telecommuting is a win-all option for organizations and employees, resulting in higher morale and job satisfaction and lower employee stress and turnover.
“Telecommuting is growing steadily in the US and globally but the evidence about the pros and cons of this work arrangement is largely anecdotal,” says Ravi S. Gajendran, lead author of the paper at the department of management and organization at Pennsylvania State University. Data from India is not available.
Since investigations of the impact of flexible work arrangements began more than 20 years ago, Gajendran and colleagues decided to undertake a meta-analysis, or quantitatively summarize existing research, of 46 studies of telecommuting involving 12,833 employees in the US.
The researchers found the existence of a ‘telecommuting paradox’. Some researchers view telecommuting positively, saying it leads to greater integration between work and family roles; others say it can intensify conflict by blurring boundaries between work and life. Other downsides include “diminished social presence” in the workplace.
“Our results show that telecommuting has an overall beneficial effect because the arrangement provides employees with more control over how they do their work,” says Gajendran. “Autonomy is a major factor in worker satisfaction and this rings true in our analysis.”
An estimated 45 million American employees telecommuted in 2006, up from 41 million in 2003, according to the international human resource association WorldatWork. In India, telecommuting is promoted by a handful of companies, particularly in the IT industry. “Intel supports telecommuting as a work option when it increases individual productivity without compromising team objectives and results,” says R. Anish, business group HR manager, Intel India in Bangalore. He says all telecommuters are required to follow company guidelines and business principles.
At Cisco, another strong proponent of flexible arrangements, more than 60% of its sales force telecommute in India. “I’d think Cisco R&D has even more telecommuters,” says Varghese Thomas, head of corporate communication in Bangalore, who telecommutes once or twice a week. Like Intel and other IT companies, Cisco telecommuters are entitled to computers and broadband connections at home.
The Pennsylvania State researchers found that telecommuters reported more job satisfaction, less motivation to leave the firm, less stress, improved work-family balance, and higher performance ratings. Telecommuting’s benefits are not restricted to employees; society gains too—through less congestion on roads or on mass transit systems and less pollution.
Legislation certainly may help, but it requires a big shift in mindset, cautions Gajendran. “Imagine legislation that mandates telecommuting one day a week for certain kind of jobs in government offices. I am not sure our babus would take very kindly to their workforce spending another day at home,” he adds.