Yahoo's impending roundup of its free-range employees reflects a deep corporate ambivalence toward telework. Yes, companies like giving employees the much-appreciated right to work at home, but can a worker really contribute productively to a team while sitting on the couch in her pajamas? My own recent research shows that managers aren't wrong to worry: In an experiment, I found that mixed teams of remote and in-office workers are less productive than 100%-in-office teams.
But what Yahoo and other companies may not realize is the powerful role that employees' perceptions play in the productivity of mixed teams. My research suggests that it's possible to maintain these teams' productivity — if they're properly managed. And I'm not talking about managing work, per se. I'm talking about managing beliefs.
But let me back up a bit.
At one time, some people thought telework was going to be the way we all did our jobs. Studies showed that working remotely increases employee satisfaction and makes people more productive by eliminating interruptions and distractions. But the work-wherever movement is now being counterbalanced by a trend toward collaboration-friendly workplaces. As cubicles give way to bullpens and other types of open-plan workspaces, companies want their employees to show up and start collaborating. That seems to be what's going on at Yahoo: The company says it wants to increase "communication and collaboration."
But do you really have to bring the teleworkers in off the range in order to increase collaboration? No one had really looked at that question in a scientific way.
So along with Krista Jabs Saral of Webster University Geneva, I conducted a series of experiments in which we allowed research participants to work in an office-like laboratory environment or in the location of their choice. They were organized into three-person teams and paid according to the teams' output on the task of decoding strings of letters.
We found that individual effort was highest in the 100%-in-house teams. The addition of remote workers reduced the in-house workers' exertion.
And why did the in-house people reduce their effort when a teleworker was added to the team? Because they believed that the teleworkers were less productive. Which wasn't true, by the way. We found no evidence that the teleworkers were shirking.
The implication is that teams containing teleworkers would benefit from knowing that remote members are working just as hard as everyone else. Managers can play a role in this, providing data about teleworkers' productivity. Our research indicates that if team members know that all other members are working hard, the negative effect of including teleworkers in teams goes away.
So companies don't have to get caught in a tug-of-war between letting their employees work remotely or forcing them to come to work and collaborate. Collaboration can happen even among in-house employees and teleworkers. It simply takes a different managerial skill set.
That should be good news for knowledge companies, because my previous work shows that there are times when the home — or the coffee shop or the library — is a much better place to work than the office. For certain types of creative work, you have to be in your favorite room, or listening to your favorite music, or sitting in your favorite chair with your cat on your lap. No other environment will do.
And when it's time to collaborate, you can pick up the phone or go on Skype and rejoin your colleagues. It's all a matter of balance.