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Remote work study: Distance makes the heart grow fonder

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Working remotely, for all its benefits, is pretty universally acknowledged to be isolating. Without water cooler chat and random encounters in the hall, the conventional wisdom goes, telecommuters inevitably feel less bonded with their teams and may even suffer loneliness (this is one of the most powerful arguments for coworking after all).

A proposition this intuitive seems like it hardly needs proving, but when researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee actually set out to measure the isolation of remote workers recently they found something shocking. Common sense, in this case, appears to be wrong.  For the study published in Communication Monographs, the UWM team compared feelings of closeness to co-workers and the organization, and feelings of stress due to interruptions of those who regularly worked at least three days a week away from the office with those that worked at least three days a week in a shared space.

Distance, it turns out, doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder in romance novels but also in our working lives. Calling the disconnected teleworker a “myth,” UWM’s release outlined the key study results:

Less is more. “The benefits of frequent communication with others were minimal and not significantly related to teleworkers’ or office workers’ sense of closeness with others in workplace interactions,” the researchers found.

Communication can equal stress. “Office workers reported significantly greater levels of stress due to interruptions compared to teleworkers.”

The phone exception. “For teleworkers, stress from interruptions was associated with increased face-to-face communication, email, instant messaging and videoconferencing. For office workers, stress was only related to increased face-to-face and email communication. Results indicate, however, that phone communication generally did not induce the same degree of stress as the other modes.”

What’s the takeaway for remote workers and their managers? Don’t blindly think that more communication is necessarily better. “It is often assumed that teleworkers need a lot of communication and contact with the organization in order to diminish their sense of distance and to develop a sense of belonging, but we found that the more teleworkers communicated with others, the more stressed they felt due to interruptions, and this was negatively associated with their identification with the organization,” said Kathryn Fonner, UWM assistant professor of communication and one of the researchers behind the study.

“Teleworkers should strategically manage their connectivity in order to balance the benefits and drawbacks of communicating with others, while organizations should focus on streamlining communication. This may include limiting mass emails, diminishing the number of weekly meetings, creating information stores and fostering an environment where employees can schedule uninterrupted time to work,” concurred co-author Michael Roloff, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

It’s worth noting that these latest results gel with earlier results showing distance can actually make workers like their colleagues more by diminishing the amount of political behavior telecommuters feel they need to deal with. We summarized the findings here on GigaOM with a famous quote: “Hell is other people.” This study offers more evidence that Sartre was on to something.

Do you think remote managers over-communicate with remote team members, inadvertently stressing them out, because of the mistaken belief that frequent contact is necessary for team cohesion? 

Image courtesy of Flickr user miss.libertine

2 Responses to “Remote work study: Distance makes the heart grow fonder”

  1. Larry M

    Not sure I agree. I work exclusively in the office. I find that the teleworkers get lonely and start a messaging system with a work-related question but then go on for fifteen or twenty minutes of socializing. If they were face-to-face with me or even on the phone they would pick up on non-textual clues that I am busy, but they don’t get those via instant messaging. Hence, as an office worker, my highest stress is IM from teleworkers.

  2. Shaleen Shah

    Intriguing study.. I love the ‘Less is More’ approach though, as in the less you micromanage your remote team, the more productive they will be. Besides, you only need to tell your team what’s needed to be done and let them wow you with a thousand ways on solving the ‘how’ of a task. It works wonders for me all the time.. simply because I invest a lot on trust. I’m not sure how it works for others though.