Why Showing Your Face at Work Matters

Although it’s increasingly common, telecommuting may be hazardous to employee evaluations. But employers can take steps to ensure that remote workers are judged fairly.

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These days, more and more corporate employees are working at least part of the time from home offices. Working from home, or other types of remote work arrangements such as using a drop-in work center, can be beneficial to both employees and companies. However, our research suggests that these nontraditional arrangements also have hidden pitfalls. Employees who work remotely may end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office — even if they work just as hard and just as long.

The difference is what we call passive face time. By that we are not referring to active interactions with coworkers or clients, but merely to being seen in the workplace. To be credited with passive face time you need only be observed at work; no information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it.

Even when in-office and remote employees are equally productive, our research suggests their supervisors might evaluate them differently because of differences in their passive face time. Especially in white-collar settings, the presence or absence of passive face time may influence evaluations used to determine the fitness of employees for specific tasks such as team leadership. As Jack and Suzy Welch wrote in a 2007 BusinessWeek column:

Companies rarely promote people into leadership roles who haven’t been consistently seen and measured. It’s a familiarity thing, and it’s a trust thing. We’re not saying that the people who get promoted are stars during every “crucible” moment at the office, but at least they’re present and accounted for. And their presence says: Work is my top priority. I’m committed to this company. I want to lead. And I can.

Related Research

K. D. Elsbach, D. M. Cable and J. W. Sherman, “How Passive ‘Face Time’ Affects Perceptions of Employees: Evidence of Spontaneous Trait Inference,” Human Relations 63, no. 6 (June 2010): 735-760.

For the last decade we’ve studied the concept of passive face time from the perspective of hundreds of corporate workers, including both supervisors and subordinates. (Details of our research were published in the June 2010 issue of Human Relations. See “Related Research.”) We used observation, unstructured interviews and tightly controlled experiments to gather information about how passive face time affects employee evaluations. This data led us to three key findings.

1. There are two kinds of passive face time. The first, which we call expected face time, is simply being seen at work during normal business hours. The second, which we call extracurricular face time, is being seen at work outside of normal business hours — arriving before most employees arrive, staying late or coming in to work on the weekend. When you are at work is noticed by your coworkers and supervisors. “Who cares?” you might legitimately ask. It turns out your boss and coworkers do. This leads to our second finding.

2. Different kinds of face time lead to different evaluations. The two forms of passive face time lead to two kinds of “trait inferences,” or conclusions about what type of person someone is. Specifically, we found that expected face time led to inferences of the traits “responsible” and “dependable.” Just being seen at work, without any information about what you’re actually doing, leads people to think more highly of you.

You get labeled when you put in extracurricular face time, too. But rather than just being considered dependable, you can get upgraded to “committed” and “dedicated.” As one manager said:

There seems to be a norm that anyone hoping to move up in the management ranks needs to be here late at night and on the weekends. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re not going be seen as dedicated enough to get promoted.

3. Managers may not be aware they are making evaluations based on face time. Our interviews suggest that managers’ inferences based on passive face time are unintentional — even unconscious. This supports research findings that people generally form trait inferences spontaneously, without realizing they are doing so. As one subject we interviewed noted:

I think it really has sort of an automatic negative effect when a manager is in crisis mode, and they look and notice you’re not there. It’s kind of irritating to them if you’re not immediately available, or [on the other hand, comforting] if they can check and see you are there in the office, just in case they need you. Because they’re in crisis mode they may not even really remember what it was that irritated them, but they’ve just got this feeling that you’re unreliable or something.

To test our interview findings, we conducted a series of experiments in which managers from a dozen industries were asked to recall employee traits after reading written descriptions of the employees. If a participant mistakenly said that a trait — for example, “committed” — had been listed in a description of someone who was described as working late in the office, they were said to have unconsciously inferred that trait. The results were clear and robust across multiple samples: Managers were 9% more likely to unconsciously attribute the traits “dependable” and “responsible” to people who put in expected face time and 25% more likely to unconsciously attribute the traits “committed” and “dedicated” to people who put in extracurricular face time. These results were statistically significant across each of our experiments.

Remote Workers’ Face Time Tactics »

Implications for Managers

Our findings suggest several steps managers should take to prevent unfair employee assessments.

1. Don’t use trait-based evaluations. Growing evidence from research on performance appraisal suggests that these evaluations are flawed in a number of ways, including not being linked to companies’ strategies or objective outputs and not helping employees understand what to change. Our findings add to this evidence by showing that trait-based evaluations — measuring employee “leadership ability” or “teamwork,” for example, may be biased by the mere physical presence of employees at the work site.

2. As much as possible, use objective output measures. Critics of remote working arrangements have long suspected that telecommuters lose out on specific types of information, such as hallway conversations or impromptu help from coworkers. Our findings suggest that remote workers might be further handicapped by perceptions that they are not as responsible or committed as other employees. To avoid such unfair perceptions, managers who implement telecommuting and flexible hours should revise their performance appraisals to measure mostly objective outputs, such as number and type of projects completed or expert evaluations of project quality.

3. Consider work arrangements when using peer feedback. Many organizations use “360-degree” appraisals in which employees are rated by peers and subordinates as well as managers. However, our research suggests that coworkers and subordinates may be just as prone to making unconscious trait judgments as managers are.

The bottom line is that employees should be wary of work arrangements that reduce their office face time, and supervisors should be wary of using trait-based performance measures, especially when evaluating remote workers. Finally, employees working remotely need to make sure they are evaluated on objective outputs. Barring that, you might consider sending an e-mail to your boss tonight . . . say, around midnight.


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Comments (23)
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I think in the comments we missed the point of the article.  It was to make us aware that we unconsciously give attributes to "passive face time".  Being aware that we have a tendency to do this can help us to asses people more objectively.  There are teams that are completely virtual, and they already account for this issue.  But for teams where one or two people may work virtually while the rest of the team is in the office, this becomes more of an issue and I think this article was addressed to that audience.
Out of sight out of mind?  
With the advances in Video Collaboration and up to date licensing (port based, not by named user) dropping the costs to mere dollars per month it's not only possible to be connected constantly, it's becoming mandatory.  This is another case of management practices needing to catch up with technical capabilities.
At Evogh we have persistent virtual rooms open all the time, and can see and talk to one another as needed.  Even if we're not talking it's reassuring to see colleagues at a glance and know that I am not alone.
I get the point: we are trying to build a Company BU of "remote" workstation.
I felt that we have to deal with this kind of problem.

If you know you can avoid!
Great points by ann.bamesberger! We're in times where management skills will make the difference more than ever. Working remotely should be considered just like any other business tactic in the manager's tool box who is doing its very best to achieve corporate goals. It can be used in all kind of circumstances even in cities like Montreal, Canada where the city is paralyzed by roads and bridges in construction.   http://www.ugoburo.ca/en/blog/telework-coworking-save-our-roads/
R Karath
It seems that most people work from home for convenience. I am remote because I work on the East Coast and the company is on the West Coast. I had to leave my state to find a job, and I'm not the only one. Flying out to get "face-time" isn't something that's going to get approved on the Expense Management side, so there has to be other solutions and considerations.
Jason Ames
Excellent response Ann.  I honestly take this article with a grain of salt. Ten years of research puts us back to a time when social computing in both consumer and enterprise environments was in its infancy.  We are much more globalized now than we were just 5 years ago, and large organizations have teams that span the globe and work together seamlessly without so-called face time.  We have managers that live across the country and themselves work from home.  We have half of our teams working in India, China and South America.  We use web meetings, instant messenging, etc. to engage in real time, ad-hoc meetings and share and collaborate like never before.  How can something as archaic as physical presence actually hold back a technology driven generation?  It can't... and for those companies that think a progressive environment is wearing business casual instead of ties and dress suits, you should "right size" your leadeship and get a new VP of HR.  We are a performance driven generation.  You can hang around the water cooler and discuss golf and last night's game hoping for your promotion because your VP saw you in the hallway...I'll have engaged my remote team a dozen times before you get back to your desk.
I get frustrated by articles like this.

Managers are ill-placed to judge the work of anyone. Peers have a much better idea of how valuable a team member is. The face-time problem would be less of a problem if we use peer evaluation instead.

All of this is a symptom of the fact that managers have too much power and are seldom held accountable for their actions. We preach efficiency and hard work and yet we indulge the whims of managers just because, well, I have no idea, but it is not in the name of efficiency or hard work.

One way to deal with this management problem is to find a more equal balance of power. A manager that penalizes people for not showing face will think twice if he or she can be penalized for such actions.
Amen to that.
Sending your boss an email at odd hours of the night has no real value unless said boss is also up at that same odd hour and working on the same project. Often that manager can assume that you are less productive at work than your peers and need to work extra hours to accomplish the same workload.

I tend to agree with Ann Bamesberger that it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs when facetime, passive or otherwise, trumps productivity and results. 

I also wonder if the study might be a wee bit myopic and may not have considered or included enough of the working arrangements of the new economy - where everyone, managers included, are often calling in to video/phoneconference because everyone is working remotely.

Last, I have to believe these findings reflect results of companies that do not produce a tangible product or measurable service. For those individuals who create, the quality and success of the final product is more important than how many people saw us working on the finished product.
I have great respect for Kim Elsbach (and hope she remembers me from the Stanford days).  However, I am saddened that "passive face time" may just be the easy alternative for managers who still do not know how to lead by example and manage by results, and unfortunately write evaluations based on perceptions of physical presence rather than real work product. 

In today's world of social networks finally making it into the workplace, I truly hope that trust can be extended, then validated, rather than defaulting to the "tyranny of face time" (as quoted by Margaret Wente in the Toronto Globe and Mail from the original Atlantic article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All"). 

What kind of a global economy defaults to face time over contribution......