Virtual managers less effective, study finds

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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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