Telecommuting: The internet is full of contradictory articles and advice about it. Some sites will tell you that you need to incorporate it into your business. Others will say you should avoid it. This difference of opinion implies that organizations have had a mixed experience of telecommuting over the last decade or so.
However, a new study from Brigham Young University has looked at this issue and the researchers have something very interesting to report. It turns out that the problem isn’t telecommuting itself; it’s when you mix telecommuting and working face to face.
The researchers found that teams with a mixture of physically and virtually present members had the most problems, including communications breakdown, power struggles, and general confusion.
Researchers created 84 groups of college students, in teams of four, and gave them a fictional scenario to role-play. Some of the teams were together in one room, some were split up so that all the members were telecommuting, and others were split up with some members physically and virtually present. The teams that were either entirely local or entirely virtual had the best results, especially from the point of view of developing an actual leader within a group.
The take-away from the study is that consistency is key. People have a hard time vesting power in somebody who is just a face on a computer screen unless everyone else is a face on a computer screen, too.
“We learned that if you want to have a clear leader emerge, you are better off having them all located face to face or all working remotely,” says Cody Reeves, assistant professor of Organizational Leadership and Strategy at BYU. “It’s when you start mixing and matching—some on site, some virtual—that’s when the real confusion comes into play.”
Since it’s likely that your business has workers who are telecommuting because you need them on a team and they aren’t local, it may be easier to have everybody telecommute. Workers don’t need to be at home in order to telecommute; they can call in from different offices or even from coffee shops if your company’s security and confidentiality policies will allow them to do so. But if you have telecommuting team members, it’s best to keep all of them working remotely so that everybody is on the same (virtual) playing field.