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Summary:

While a host of studies have found that telecommuters are more productive and happier with their work, new research paints a less rosy picture of managing virtually, finding that bosses who don’t share a space with their reports perform slightly worsel than co-located supervisors.

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Researchers have reached a pretty strong consensus on telecommuting – it’s awesome for employees. A recent study done by Stanford researchers in China demonstrated that working remotely makes employees more productive (and profitable), while teleworkers themselves consistently tell those that ask that they love the flexibility or working where they please. But does this rosy picture of remote work extend to managers?

Maybe not, suggests a new study appearing in Human Relations and highlighted on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. The study was co-authored by a professor from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and involved polling more than 11,000 employees of a U.S. Fortune 500 company. Participants were asked how often they and their manager worked remotely, as well as about several work outcomes. BPS reports the results:

Respondents managed by teleworking managers reported receiving less feedback and professional development, a more unbalanced workload and feeling less empowered. A similar negative pattern was found for those with fully virtual managers. The effect sizes were small overall, suggesting this needn’t be a make or break issue, but the trend was there.

Note though that the negative effects of managers working virtually were only observed compared to when supervisors were co-located with their teams. When a boss’s reports were themselves telecommuters, it made no difference where the supervisor was located. This suggests it might be worth investigating if having a boss with the freedom to work from their back garden or the local coffee shop while his or her employees are stuck in cubes could be behind some of the negativity reported by those who report to telecommuting supervisors. The researchers, however, had another explanation for the fall off in satisfaction when a manager went virtual. The researchers chalked the problem up to social exchange theory, which BPS explains:

Working relationships that are partly virtual have less opportunities for rich exchanges, with communications lacking the face-to-face component and fewer obvious opportunities to ‘grab a moment’, described by social innovator David Engwicht as spontaneous exchanges. Interactions are likely to be more task-focused and obligatory, as email is more onerous to produce when compared to a quick coffee or moment in the corridor. And professional development and mentoring becomes similarly laborious, always a dangerous place for any ‘important to do’ but non-urgent activity to be.

If you’ve experienced working in an office while your manager is working virtually, share your feelings –did having a remote manager decrease your satisfaction with your work?

Image courtesy of Flickr user snre.

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  1. Reblogged this on BULLETFAME.

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  2. Really interesting piece but the fact that jumped out for me was “When a boss’s reports were themselves telecommuters, it made no difference where the supervisor was located”. The issue of manager effectiveness disappears when both the manager and the people they manage are all virtual. Put everyone on a level playing field virtually and the problem evaporates. Good to see more research though on the effectiveness of face to face v virtual working – we need it.

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  3. Sigh, another case of reporting conclusions based on partial data. Were the surveyed telecommuters and telemanagers who had problems trained in communication techniques before they began telecommuting? Otherwise you’re in a situation of being shocked that untrained drivers have more accidents than those who passed driver training. Clearly, the bosses who are themselves telecommuters get it.

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  4. This begs the question of part-time telecommuting — perhaps the best situation is when one works sometimes at corporate (for team interactions and serendipitous exchanges) and sometimes closer to home (for preparing deliverables without interruptions and increased productivity). Changing it up is where this is going.

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  5. Canada Career Jobs Friday, March 30, 2012

    The issue of manager effectiveness disappears when both the manager and the people they manage are all virtual. Put everyone on a level playing field virtually and the problem evaporates. Posted by – http://www.canadajobsnew.com/

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  6. Shocking but true. How I wish my boss worked from home :)

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