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During the last decade, virtual work — professionals working remotely from home, from client locations or simply from the road — has become increasingly prevalent. Some Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble, IBM, Accenture and AT&T, have already partially or fully eliminated traditional offices.1 As much as 10% of today’s work force telecommutes from home — more than triple the level of 2000. In addition, as companies trim staff positions in areas such as information technology, accounting and public relations, they are relying more heavily on freelance workers.2 Telecommuting and remote work arrangements will accelerate in the coming decades in response to the ongoing globalization of work, ever-increasing customer demands and the cost and time of commuting.
Virtual work arrangements appeal to both corporations and employees based on the economics and the personal flexibility and autonomy they offer. Flexible work has enabled corporations to hire and retain employees who value the ability to respond to family demands and desire more control over the time, place and mode of their work.3 By reducing the number of full-time employees on site, corporations are realizing higher productivity and savings in real estate costs. International Business Machines Corp., for example, saves $100 million a year by allowing 42% of its employees to work remotely.4 However, virtual employees and managers alike are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges associated with virtual work as they relate to internal communication, social interaction and employee satisfaction and commitment.
The Pros and Cons of Remote Work
Traditional work is based on tying an employee’s time to job tasks and location. It is structured around employees gathered in a central location, which allows managers to coordinate activities and advance internal communication. The traditional work format enables sharing of social experience, interpersonal coordination, modeling of work behaviors and giving and seeking advice. Virtual work, by contrast, refers to employment configurations outside of the traditional office — along a continuum that ranges from occasional telecommuting to “hoteling” (sharing office space in a company location designed for use on a drop-in basis) to home-based work to fully mobile employees.5
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1. C. Hymowitz, “Have Advice Will Travel: Lacking Permanent Offices, Accenture’s Executives Run ‘Virtual’ Company on the Fly,” Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2006.
2. A. Balderrama, “Work from Home in Your Pajamas,” July 9, 2008, www.careerbuilder.com.
3. R.S. Gajendran and D.A. Harrison, “The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta-Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences,” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 6 (2007): 1524-1541.
4. “The Virtual Workforce,” BusinessWeek, March 5, 2007, 6.
5. T.H. Davenport and K. Pearlson, “Two Cheers for the Virtual Office,” Sloan Management Review 39, no. 4 (summer 1998): 51-65.
6. Gajendran and Harrison, “The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown”; and D.E. Bailey and N.B. Kurland, “A Review of Telework Research: Findings, New Directions and Lessons for the Study of Modern Work,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 23, no. 4 (2002): 383-400.
7. J.H. Greenhaus and G.N. Powell, “When Work and Family Are Allies: A Theory of Work-Family Enrichment,” Academy of Management Review 31, no. 1 (2006): 72–92; J.E. Jennings and M.S. McDougald, “Work-Family Interface Experiences and Coping Strategies: Implications for Entrepreneurship Research and Practice,” Academy of Management Review 32, no. 3 (2007): 747-760; and G.E. Kreiner, “Consequences of Work-Home Segmentation or Integration: A Person-Environment Fit Perspective,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 27, no. 4 (2006): 485-507.
8. J. Kugelmass, “Telecommuting: A Manager’s Guide to Flexible Work Arrangements” (New York: Jossey-Bass, 1995).
9. T.D. Golden, J.F. Veiga, and Z. Simsek, “Telecommuting’s Differential Impact on Work-Family Conflict: Is There No Place Like Home?,” Journal of Applied Psychology 91, no. 6 (November 2006): 1340-1350.
10. J.P. Mulki, W.B. Locander, G.W. Marshall, E.G. Harris and J. Hensel, “Workplace Isolation, Salesperson Commitment and Job Performance,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management 28, no. 1 (2008): 67-78.
11. According to R.L. Daft and R.H. Lengel, information richness is the extent to which media are able to bridge different frames of reference, carry multiple cues, reduce equivocality and minimize ambiguity; see R.L. Daft and R.H. Lengel, “Organizational Information Requirements, Media Richness and Structural Design,” Management Science 32, no. 5 (1986): 554-571.
12. According to Daft and Lengel, social presence is the degree to which the communication medium conveys the physical presence and the nonverbal and social cues of the participants. This is particularly true for e-mails and instant messages, which are devoid of facial expressions, gestures or vocal intonation, as well as indicators of social position. See R.L. Daft, R.H. Lengel, and L.K. Trevino, “Message Equivocality, Media Selection and Manager Performance: Implications for Information Systems,” MIS Quarterly 11, no. 3 (1987): 355-366.
13. J.P. Mulki, F. Jaramillo, and W.B. Locander, “Effects of Ethical Climate and Supervisory Trust on Salesperson’s Job Attitudes and Intentions to Quit,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management 26, no. 1 (2006): 19-26.