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Is Having Too Many Remote Workers Bad for Business?

Is Having Too Many Remote Workers Bad for Business?
Credit: Who is Danny/Shutterstock

Giving your employees the chance to work from home might not be the win-win proposition many believe it to be, new research finds.

Although telecommuting is widely viewed as being good for both employees and employers, it does have its downsides, according to a study recently published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries. Specifically, having too many employees work from home drains a company's office of its traditional value and appeal, which in turn prompts more employees to want to work remotely.

The study's authors said working off-site is contagious and can spread through a company until the makeup of an organization changes from having distributed individuals and groups to having a distributed workforce.

"What defines this tipping point is the lack of enough physically present co-workers to motivate individuals to come to the office," the study's authors, Kevin Rockmann of George Mason University and Michael Pratt of Boston College, wrote.

Rockmann and Pratt said this contradicts previous thinking, which suggested that many choose to work remotely for better work-life balance or from a belief that doing so will increase their productivity. [Are Remote Workers Better Workers? ]

The authors argue, instead, that part of the motivation is that as more and more workers choose to work off-site, those left behind miss out on a primary reason they want to work in the office: social interaction. The researchers said their study revealed that employees who worked largely off-site still missed the social and work benefits of the old office.

"Workers who would normally work on-site decided to work off-site rather than face an office empty of relevant people," the study's authors wrote. "Once a certain number of individuals work off-site, everyone is isolated." 

The researchers said this raises the question of whether workers who choose to work from home are truly happy or simply less unsatisfied than those who remain.

"While those off-site might experience greater job satisfaction against the [on-site] baseline, that increase may simply reflect the fact that the baseline level has dropped," Rockmann and Pratt wrote.

The research was based a two-part study of employees at a large, U.S.-based, high-tech multinational company. The research began with in-person interviews of 29 employees in a California division of the company that mostly provides IT services, nine who worked off-site one day a week or less, 10 who did so between two and four days, and 10 who did so full time.

Among the sentiments expressed during the interviews were that employees would often come to the office only to find out they were the only ones there, that they no longer felt the same sense of team they once did and that they were often lonely working in the office.

On the basis of their interviews, the professors developed surveys that they administered to two groups: 242 employees in the same California division and 386 randomly chosen workers from company units all across the country. The surveys asked employees how much of their work time was spent off-site and why they chose this option.

Both groups were given six possible responses. The study's authors found that for both groups, the response, "few people, if any, from my team work in the office much, so I do not benefit from coming in," emerged as the strongest reason for wanting to work remotely.

Although this study did not examine how an increased remote workforce related to company performance, the study's authors said their research exposes the downside of telecommuting.

"At the very least, off-site work is not the win-win situation it's widely considered to be," Pratt said in a statement. "Companies that permit employees to decide where they work should be aware that this practice can take on a life of its own, and should make sure they have the means to bring teams together — in person and face-to face — as often as needed."

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.