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Some of the world’s most important scientific discoveries have occurred by accident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are currently in the midst of an unexpected natural experiment on telework. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the term telework refers to “a work arrangement that allows an employee to perform work, during any part of regular, paid hours, at an approved alternative worksite (e.g., home, telework center).” The word “telework” is derived from the Greek word “tele,” which means “from a distance.” The current situation of nonessential workers pivoting to telework provides organizations the unique opportunity to make discoveries about the impact of telework on their employees and organization as a whole.

Before the pandemic, many organizations required telework agreements, accommodation requests, trial periods, minimum performance levels, or other preparation before allowing employees to work from home (if telework was allowed at all). In addition, many existing research studies on telework best practices have been nonexperimental and have comprised employees who are predominately high performing.[1],[2],[3] Now that employees at varying performance levels have suddenly become teleworkers, organizations have the chance to examine how to maximize connectedness and productivity among all types of employees and determine whether telework is a scalable option for the future.

With these factors taken into consideration, organizations with newly remote workforces can investigate research questions around the individual and organizational impact of large-scale teleworking. For example, how can your organization best foster the benefits of telework and mitigate potential drawbacks? Although these are uncharted waters, we can draw from existing research on telework to better understand the implications of this rapid switch to telework on employee and organizational outcomes.

Critical Elements to Maximize Telework Benefits

Teleworking can have benefits for employees and organizations such as increased job satisfaction, increased perceptions of autonomy, and decreased turnover intentions.[4] Unfortunately, the effects of telework are not uniformly positive and some of the positive effects of telework depend on certain aspects of the job or work context (e.g., job characteristics and degree of autonomy). The downfalls of telework can include higher levels of family-to-work conflict,[5] expansion of work hours,[6] and feelings of social isolation.[7] In order to maximize the benefits and reduce the challenges associated with teleworking, existing research indicates that there are several critical elements to implement: technological support and media-rich technology, supervisor support, clarity in telework policies, and frequent and clear communication.

Approaches to Combat Isolation and Foster Connection

However, some of the challenges associated with telework before COVID-19 may be exacerbated during the pandemic, so organizations may need to take additional steps or provide additional resources to counteract them. For example, feelings of isolation may be particularly prevalent during the pandemic, so organizations might consider creative methods to help employees feel connected (e.g., informal conversation boards, online chat, virtual happy hours). Other ways to foster connection while employees are physically separated include engaging in regular check-in meetings, offering virtual events, or providing newsletters with updates and support. These approaches can foster more informal conversations to encourage information sharing and relationship building. Increasing communication in both directions (from employees to managers and vice versa) about what is working or not working about the current situation can enhance feelings of engagement, commitment, and fairness. Consider asking employees regularly what is working for them and what is not and adjust to meet their needs, if possible. Further, providing training to leaders on their new role in managing dispersed teams can support continued success throughout the pandemic. Once these approaches are established, organizations may find that continuing them post-pandemic will be beneficial to sustaining connections between remote employees and those in the office.

Revisiting Accommodation Requests

Another unique consideration in the rapid transition to telework during the COVID-19 pandemic are the perceptions of individuals who had previously been denied telework accommodations. For example, employees with disabilities who had been previously denied requests for telework as an accommodation may perceive unfairness in the fact that telework has now been approved for all when they had previously been told that it was not possible to perform their essential job functions remotely.[8] The current situation provides an opportunity for organizations to reconsider employees’ requests for accommodation given the information learned during this time. However, it should be highlighted that there are many aspects of the current situation that differ from “normal” telework experiences (i.e., lack of childcare, concerns about safety and health).

Moving Forward

Organizations may be questioning whether telework for an increased percentage of their workforce is sustainable semi-permanently or permanently. The long-term effects of organization-wide telework are not yet known, but if organizations can continue to learn from employees during this natural experiment, then they can discover how to sharpen their resilience for the duration of this crisis. 

Fors Marsh Group will continue to share human capital insights as shifts occur due to COVID-19. Sign up for more perspective pieces from FMG Experts here. Reach out to our team to continue the conversation and gain additional resources.

[1] Gray, M., & Tudball, J. (2003). Family-friendly work practices: differences within and between workplaces. Journal of Industrial Relations45(3), 269–291.

[2] Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology92(6), 1524.

[3] Allen, T. D., Golden, T. D., & Shockley, K. M. (2015). How effective is telecommuting? Assessing the status of our scientific findings. Psychological Science in the Public Interest16(2), 40–68.

[4] Gajendran, R. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2007). The good, the bad, and the unknown about telecommuting: Meta-analysis of psychological mediators and individual consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology92(6), 1524.

[5] Golden, T. D., Veiga, J. F., & Simsek, Z. (2006). Telecommuting's differential impact on work-family conflict: Is there no place like home? Journal of Applied Psychology91(6), 1340.

[6] Noonan, M. C., & Glass, J. L. (2012). The hard truth about telecommuting. Monthly Labor Review135, 38.

[7] Golden, T. D., Veiga, J. F., & Dino, R. N. (2008). The impact of professional isolation on teleworker job performance and turnover intentions: Does time spent teleworking, interacting face-to-face, or having access to communication-enhancing technology matter? Journal of Applied Psychology93(6), 1412–1421.

[8] Bloomberg Law (2020). Coronavirus telework tests disability accommodation defense. Retrieved from https://news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/coronavirus-telework-challenges-disability-accommodation-defense

FMG Expert

amanda anderson

Amanda Anderson

Senior Researcher

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