Telecommuting and Health: Perspectives on the Paradox of Productivity

Telecommuting and Health: Perspectives on the Paradox of Productivity

I am a telecommuter. Before noon I will speak with co-workers in three different time zones, using three different telecommunication platforms. To organize these meetings, I will use two email servers and three calendar applications. Later this week, I will use two different grading platforms to record grades and communicate with my students. Telecommuting bypasses physical location yet tethers me to electronic devices that ‘connect’ me to others. Arguably, I am simultaneously alone and connected, while in multiple time zones, in multiple virtual places, with multiple people and yet no one at all. Alas, the nature of my work life is tantamount to Schrödinger’s cat, potentially alive and dead, at the same time. The irony is noteworthy: I am a social scientist who spends most of her time physically alone.

In considering the paradoxical of nature of my online work for this essay, I began researching the concept of telecommuting with a focus on the impacts on health and well-being with a series of questions:

  1. How is the concept defined?
  2. What is current prevalence and nature of telecommuting workforce?
  3. What does the literature tell us about telecommuting and health and well-being?

What is telecommuting?

In a meta-synthesis of existing research regarding telecommuting Allen, Golden, & Schockley (2015) integrated multiple historical constructs of remote work and operationalized a working definition of telecommuting as:

a work practice that involves members of an organization substituting a portion of their typical work hours (ranging from a few hours per week to nearly full-time) to work away from a central workplace—typically principally from home—using technology to interact with others as needed to conduct work tasks. (p. 44)

From this definition, one can further consider that telecommuting has been studied as an inherently paradoxical phenomenon. Removing the worker from the workplace positions the organization and the individual together, yet separate. Requiring the same work completed through a computer outside of the physical workplace offers social science a fascinating topic for inquiry. One might wonder, can a telecommuting employee sit outside of the workplace, open a laptop and proceed to telecommute? Is there some range or spatial circumference around a building where it doesn’t count? Do you still get paid if you sneak in and hijack a free cubicle for a few hours? Further understanding of the make-up of the employers and employees engaged in telecommuting sheds light on the current state of play in remote work and its impact on employee well-being.

Who telecommutes?

Several sources are cited in a somewhat confusing assessment of the state of telecommuting. A 2011 Reuters poll examined the trend of telecommuting across 24 countries, stating that one in 5 workers reported telecommuting frequently, and nearly 10% of workers reporting working from home every day (Reaney, 2012). The World at Work 2013 workplace flexibility survey cited 85% of its members reported telecommuting ad hoc and 53% reported working from home a minimum of one day per week. Upon deeper examination, however, I discovered the response rate for 5,137 members was only 16%, with 834 responses recorded. After adjusting the data for duplicates, the final sample size used for analysis was only 566, or 11.018%. There is also a lack of clarity in the literature with regards to date of publication. A recent (2017) study cited the same report as being published in 2015, when in fact it was published in 2013 (Vander Elst, Sercu, Van den Broeck, Baillen, & Godderis, 2017). More recently, another human resource report published by the Society for Human Resource Management (2014) surveyed 275,000 members, reporting that 59% of employers permitted telecommuting.

Lastly, an independent research organization, underwritten by an employment placement agency, reports that as of its 2017 analysis:

  • 7 million employees (2.8% of the workforce) now work from home at least half the time.
  • The employee population as a whole grew by 1.9% from 2013 to 2014, while employees who telecommuter population grew 5.6%.
  • Forty percent more U.S. employers offered flexible workplace options than they did five years ago. Still, only 7% make it available to most of their employees.
  • Larger companies are most likely to offer telecommuting options to most of their employees.
  • New England and Mid-Atlantic region employers are the most likely to offer telecommuting options.
  • Full-time employees are four times more likely to have work-at-home options than part-time workers.
  • Non-union workers are twice as likely to have access to telecommuting, but union employee access is growing rapidly. (Global Workplace Analytics, 2017)

Despite the lack of clarity regarding full prevalence rates, the data show an increasing prevalence of telecommuting in industry. Who are the telecommuters swept up in the telecommuting diaspora? According to the Global Workplace Analytics (2017) the profile of a typical telecommuter includes:

  • Older (50+), college educated, salaried, non-union employee.
  • Larger companies are more likely to allow telecommuting than smaller ones.
  • Non-exempt employees are far less likely to work at home on a regular or ad hoc basis than salaried employees.
  • Non-union organizations are more likely to offer telecommuting those with unions. (Global Workplace Analytics, 2017)
  • Relative to the total population, a disproportionate share of employees in the following occupations telecommute (in order of largest disproportion to smallest):
  • Military
  • Computer and Mathematical
  • Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media Occupations
  • Farming, Fishing, and Forestry
  • Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations
  • Legal Occupations
  • Community and Social Service Occupations
  • Architecture and Engineering Occupations
  • Business and Financial

The list of occupations, absent higher education, reflects the widespread sectors of industry engaging in telecommuting practices. While the industry continues to increase its use of telecommuting, how is worker well-being impacted?

Telecommuter Health and Wellbeing

Interestingly, a paradox of telecommuting plays out in the literature. After reviewing nearly fifty articles, it became clear that the impact of telecommuting is noted in the literature as both positive and negative. For example, benefits reported include:

  • Increased worker autonomy (Golden, 2009; Hornung & Glaser, 2009; Gregg, 2011; Maruyama & Tietze, 2012; Tremblay & Thomsin, 2012)
  • Increased productivity due to increased accessibility to work (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007; Morgan, 2004; Overmyer, 2011; Pyöriä, 2011)
  • Higher job satisfaction (Fonner & Roloff, 2010; Gajendran & Harrison, 2007; Hornung & Glaser, 2009; Morgan, 2004)
  • Improved work morale (Campbell & McDonald, 2009; Kanellopoulos, 2011; Pyöriä, 2011; Wheately, 2012)
  • Improved work-life balance (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007; Golden, 2009; Gregg, 2011; Kanellopoulous, 2011; Overmyer, 2011; Tremblay & Thomsin, 2012)

The literature also demonstrates a negative impact of telecommuting on similar domains of worker well-being, such as:

  • Reduced worker autonomy (Mazmanian et al., 2013), and workaholism (Sarker et al., 2012).
  • Decrease work satisfaction (Mann & Holdsworth, 2003; Pyöriä, 2011)
  • Increased work-life conflict (Fonner & Stache, 2012; Gold & Mustafa, 2013;

Gregg, 2011; Stache, 2012; Sarker et al., 2012; Tremblay & Thomsin, 2012)

  • Reduced knowledge sharing and implicit knowledge sharing (Baruch, 2000; Brodt & Verburg, 2007; Pearlson & Saunders, 2001; Pyöriä, 2011)
  • Reduced identification with organization (Allen et al., 2003; Golden, 2009)

What stands out from the similarities, however, is the literature regarding telecommuting and worker social isolation and lack of workplace involvement (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007; Golden, 2009; Gregg, 2011; Mann & Holdsworth, 2003; Maruyama & Tietze, 2012; Tremblay & Thomsin, 2012).

Social Isolation

Telecommuting removes us from the public space, isolating us professionally and socially. Of 11, 383 telecommuters surveyed in the 2012 Reuters poll, 62% reported social isolation (Reaney, 2012). Social isolation has been linked to poorer job performance and greater intent to leave the organization (Golden, Veiga, & Dino, 2008), and less sense of organizational inclusion (Morganson, Major, Oborn, Verive, & Heelan, 2010). Preference for face-to-face interaction and main import in establishing and maintaining workplace friendships has been documented (Sias, Pedersen, Gallagher, & Kopaneva, 2012). Despite the advancement of video conferencing ICT, researchers note the unnatural eye contact as an isolating effect due to lack of mutual eye contact (Giger, Bazin, Kuster, Popa, & Gross, 2014).

When at work with others, we use interpersonal skills to pick up on important social cues. In the workplace, our cognitive resources are fully exercised. We speak, problem solve, think abstractly, learn and remember information through the benefit of being with others. We also engage a full range of our brains to coordinate all of those functions into appropriate responses, actions, and words. Working with others shapes our attitudes and behaviors (Allen, et al., 2015) and provides an opportunity to share tacit organizational knowledge (W. Baker & Dutton, 2007).

Neuropsychological science confirms that humans are hardwired to be social. We were designed to have reciprocal feedback loops of neurons perceiving the environment, processing that material in the designated brain regions, and coordinating our response. Basic brain development hinges on interaction with others. If infants are not engaged by a primary caretaker, for example, the biological processes of neural development necessary for brain development, such as neural proliferation, migration, and pruning are stunted (Swain, Lorberbaum, Kose, & Strathern, 2007). Specific regions of the brain circuitry mediate emotional empathy, collaborative behavior, and social attachment (Pelphry, Morris, Michelich, Allison & McCarthey, 2005; Saxe, 2006b).

Our most developed brain regions in the frontal and prefrontal cortexes serve to perceive, understand, explain and predict other people’s behaviors through direct observation in face to face contact. Could removal from the social workplace limit our brain function?

Consider this, I easily work an average of 4-5 hours a day without physically speaking. I produce my work through telecommunication networks. I respond to emails, I write articles, I grade papers, and I conduct research without one word being said. Are critical areas of the brain, necessary for intrapersonal functioning, such as the prefrontal cortex, not being used? If I am not listening to others or speaking words for hours at a time every day, do my speech and communication centers such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s area atrophy? More importantly, if thousands of people are not using these brain regions over time, what might the evolutionary impact be on our innate human attributes: speech, semantics, and communication (Chomsky, 1980). Is it possible that technology affords speed of transmitting information at the ultimate cost of universal communication? Further, the stress using technology may be taking an invisible toll on our overall physical wellness.         

Technostress

Coined in the early 1980’s, technostress refers to the social expectation to use multiple devices of information and communication technologies (ICT) simultaneously. Described as a “modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies” (Brod, 1984, p. 16), technostress has been identified as a construct of work stress impacting employee physical and psychological health and well-being (Laspinas, 2015). Somatic stress responses have been described in the literature as poor health, workplace effort-reward imbalance, and job strain (Riedl, 2012; Riedl, Kindermann, Auinger, & Javor, 2012; Stadin, Nordin, Brostrom, Magnusson Hanson, Westerlund, & Fransson, 2016). Not only has technostress been identified as negatively impacting work-life-balance and family life (Diaz, Chiaburu, Zimmerman, & Boswell, 2012), technostress impairs physiological health and wellness (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001).

The experience is familiar. Multiple devices with constantly changing platforms chronically tax our work energies. Maintaining technological proficiency is a professional mandate, and with any mandatory learning task, comes stress. The difference here is that technostress for the telecommuter is experienced in isolation from others. Where does that unearthed stress go when the laptop is our only co-worker? I predict health psychology will follow answer this question in the near future.

Ideally, telecommuting provides an opportunity to bridge space and time in the name of increased productivity, decreased pollution, and job satisfaction. That was the idea, anyway. The paradox of telecommuting and health, however, remains rooted in conflicting needs of the individual and industry. What might manifest from a global paradigm of labor as separate from reality, virtually conducted? Quantum telecommuting?

________

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