The demise of recent high profile flexible work programs at Yahoo and Best Buy is attention grabbing because technology companies, the assumed leaders in technology-based management, are killing technology based programs. This raises the question – If high tech companies can’t make these programs work, who can?
Should we blame management for killing these policies? After all, the much-maligned perception of telecommuters has them relaxing in the pool watching daytime TV. I understand much of the angst from the top managers. My own recent research shows that in an experiment, mixed teams comprised of office based workers and telecommuters are less productive than teams based solely in the office. But what I also found was a remedy to the problem; managers need to simply manage the beliefs of their workers.
How did I come to this conclusion? It usually starts with a simple question. Krista Jabs Saral (of Webster University Geneva) and I wanted to find out if including telecommuters in a team affected productivity, and if so, why. In order to specifically isolate this question, we conducted an experiment where subjects were performing tasks in teams of three. The location of the team members was varied where subjects were either in a cubicled office-like environment or in a location of their choice.
We found that the productivity was the highest when all of the subjects were in the office environment meaning that once remote workers were added to their team, they reduced their output. With foresight, we also measured the beliefs of the subjects. This turned out to be quite important as those subjects who reduced their output were the same ones that believed that the remote workers were less productive.
This makes a lot of sense; those in a team don’t want to work hard if everyone else is slacking. This is good news managers – they don’t have to eliminate their remote workers or cut this perceived benefit; they just need to adjust their management style to ensure their team’s trust each other. As my prior work has shown, allowing work place flexibility actually increases the productivity of certain tasks. Thus, as flexible work programs go away, so too goes the potentially valuable employees who relied on them. We do not yet have all of the answers, but what is apparent is that the companies that will eventually succeed are the ones that are able to adjust their management strategies to keep up with technological advances.
Note. E. Glenn Dutcher is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Public Finance at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Glenn’s website can be found here.