Has Your Office Become a Lonely Place?

A new study suggests that remote work may be contagious — and can create a less productive environment for those remaining at the office.

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Pity the 21st century office worker. With increasing amounts of work getting done outside the traditional corporate office — for example, through employees working at home — those left in the office may face a lonelier — and even less productive — office environment. In fact, working remotely may be contagious, because if too many of the people on a team aren’t in the office much, coming into the office has less benefit for the remaining employees, who may then also choose to work remotely.

That’s the implication of a fascinating study described in the paper, “Contagious Offsite Work and the Lonely Office: The Unintended Consequences of Distributed Work,” published in the December 2015 issue of the journal Academy of Management Discoveries. (See “Related Research.”) The paper’s authors, Kevin W. Rockmann, an associate professor at the School of Business at George Mason University, and Michael G. Pratt, the O’Connor Family Professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, studied a Fortune 100 company that has about 100,000 employees and that generally allows employees substantial flexibility about where they choose to work.

Rockmann and Pratt write that they originally set out to study how employees experienced remote work. However, their initial research findings led them to focus more on what they describe as “the deteriorating experience of the onsite office” when working off-site is widespread.

Rockmann and Pratt first interviewed 29 employees of the Fortune 100 company. Among other things, those interviews suggested that, when given a choice of where to work, two factors that induce employees to choose to come to the office are a desire for social interaction with colleagues and the productivity advantages of being able to interact with colleagues easily face-to-face. However, in an organization where many people work off-site, these advantages are diminished: Some employees reported to the researchers that they could come into the office and find none of their other team members there. As a result, the researchers found, some employees opted to work off-site simply because so many of their colleagues were off-site that they saw little point in coming in.


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