- Telecommuters and other virtual employees tend to feel they are less respected in their organizations than on-site coworkers
- Isolation negatively affects employees regardless of how long they have worked at a company
- Virtual employees report that they are over-supervised and excluded from the decision-making process
The evolution of communications technology has made it easy for companies to connect with employees even when they aren’t at the office. But despite the conveniences of telecommuting, video conferencing, and cloud computing, the potential downsides of the virtual workplace often go overlooked.
Caroline Bartel, associate professor of management at the McCombs School of Business, recently completed a study that examines the ways “virtual work” affects employees who work outside the office, isolated from coworkers. In many cases, these employees start to feel disconnected from company culture and come to believe they are less respected in their organizations than their colleagues who work together in person.
Bartel and her coauthors, Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University and Batia Wiesenfeld at New York University, examined the relationship between virtual employees’ degree of physical isolation and their perceived respect in the organization, hypothesizing that the two are negatively associated. This relationship would explain the tendency for isolated virtual employees to identify less with the missions of their organizations.
Survey data collected in the study supported this idea. Full-time virtual employees (both recent hires and veterans) at two different technology companies reported feeling a significant disconnect between themselves and the rest of their organizations.
“They were feeling removed from the organization in such a way that they felt as though their status in the organization had dropped considerably,” Bartel says. “That drop in status made them feel as though they were not respected members.”
Isolation Erodes Perceived Respect
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of American employees who telecommute at least once a month has more than doubled since 2001, reaching a peak of about 20 million in 2008. Also the proportion of telecommuters in the labor force increased from 8 percent in 2006 to 11 percent in 2008. However, there has been an overall decrease in the proportion of employees that telecommute almost every day — from 51 percent in 2006 to 40 percent in 2008 — suggesting that virtual work is becoming more of an occasional practice rather than a permanent arrangement for employees.
Many organizations, notably IT companies and government agencies, make virtual work arrangements to cut the costs of operating multiple offices, or to accommodate employees whose positions require them to work elsewhere. Bartel wanted to look beyond those surface goals and examine how these arrangements affect an employee’s relationship with the organization.
This is a common theme in much of Bartel’s work — it begins with basic observations about common workplace practices and leads to deeper questions about their unintended consequences: “Here’s an interesting practice. Here are the obvious reasons why it’s been implemented. Here are the effects that are showcased, but what else may be going on there — especially when you're talking about fundamentally changing how people are doing their work,” Bartel says.
The study defines “perceived respect” as an employee’s personal sense of where they stand in the organization based on their interactions with others and the feedback they receive. To measure this, the researchers conducted two sets of surveys. The first went to recent hires at a large technology firm. A second set of surveys was given to longer-tenured employees at a different firm. The results of the two were very similar, reinforcing the hypothesis that physical isolation and perceived respect are inversely correlated.
Bartel says the research also suggests that isolation negatively affects employees regardless of how long they have worked at a company. Employees who cannot participate in the same activities and traditions as those who work on site tend to feel disconnected at some level.
Additionally, the survey results indicated that employees are well aware of the negative influences of isolation. One open-ended question asked respondents to make statements about how physical isolation affects their status at the company — the researchers categorized 84 percent of the responses to this question as negative, and just 16 percent as positive.
Consequences of Disconnection
Bartel says employees generally feel respected when managers and coworkers hold them up to the same standards as everyone else at the organization. On the other hand, they feel disrespected when they are held to different, inappropriate standards or excluded altogether.
The study identifies two main types of disrespect at the workplace: disrespect by commission (for example, when off-site employees are remotely monitored or supervised more than their on-site peers) and by omission (e.g., when virtual employees are left out of the decision-making process). The latter type is a common source of frustration for off-site workers, according to the study: “In organizations where informal decision making processes are customary (e.g., occurring in hallway conversations or impromptu meetings), greater physical isolation disrupts participation in these normative activities.”
In their analysis of the open-ended survey question mentioned above, Bartel and her colleagues divided the negative responses into three subcategories to describe the basis of the negative feelings:
- Diminished respect (24 percent of responses) — inclusion (“feeling isolated,” “not really viewed as part of the practice,” “feel lost in the crowd,” “feel separated from my colleagues and business unit”) and social reputation (“not seen as credible,” “not getting respect,” “feeling undervalued,” “not taken seriously”)
- Less involvement in projects and decisions (44 percent of responses) — “not involved in the ‘real’ work of this company,” “not a part of key decisions”
- Disrupted communication (16 percent of responses) — “hard to keep abreast of policy changes and resource actions,” “responses are not timely”
Bridging the Virtual Divide
Bartel’s study has several implications for organizations that rely on virtual employees. The research suggests that if managers help employees feel confident that they are respected whether they are on site or off, this will encourage the virtual employee to identify more strongly with the company.
The authors also identify a need to look more closely at the social elements that shape workplace norms — those practiced by managers and their employees alike — and to consider how those values might affect an employee’s sense of respect.
And while previous research has suggested that recent hires are less well-suited for virtual work, Bartel’s study suggests that managers should consider the challenges faced by all off-site employees, including those who have worked at the organization for several years.