Stanford University

News Service



David F. Salisbury, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

The luck and loneliness of the long-distance worker

In the traditional office, workers are much like the individual members in a symphony orchestra. They rely on a broad range of verbal and non-verbal interactions to coordinate their efforts. Much as string players watch each other to synchronize bow strokes, workers adjust their pace so that it is compatible with fellow workers. Meanwhile, the boss acts something like the conductor, keeping the entire office together and prompting workers when needed.

Today, however, this model of office work is under assault. The rise of telecommuting is steadily increasing the percentage of employees who work from home or nearby satellite offices. According to the best estimates, the number of people who are engaged in some form of telecommuting grew from 1.6 percent in 1992 to 6.3 percent in 1997. Full-time telecommuters remain only a tiny fraction of the workforce, but the social impacts of powerful new technologies including the Internet and cell phones are just beginning.

In addition to telecommuting, globalization of the world economy has meant that an increasing number of offices include employees who are spread not only around the country but around the world. And the rise of e-mail, voicemail, cellular phones and other similar communications technologies are rapidly breaking down the 8-to-5 time barrier that has restricted work in previous generations.

In today's work-a-day world, workers increasingly inhabit separate rooms, buildings or even countries, and communicate by phone, fax, videoconference or computer. Although these changes can lead to increased flexibility and higher productivity, they also raise a number of important issues. These concerns were the subject of a July campus workshop attended by about 50 academic and industry representatives who met to discuss the sociology of a business world where workers increasingly interact across spatial, organizational and cultural expanses.

The workshop jointly sponsored by the Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing at Stanford (AIMS) and by the Center for Work, Technology and Organization (WTO) in Stanford's Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management (IEEM) Department was organized by IEEM Professors Stephen R. Barley and Robert I. Sutton.

(AIMS is a campus-based joint venture of Stanford's Graduate School of Business, the School of Engineering and a number of corporate partners; its mission is to encourage advances in manufacturing and to disseminate these advances throughout industry and academia. WTO, also supported by several industrial partners, studies relationships among technologies and organizations and their interactions with how work is carried out.)

The group concluded that getting people to work effectively in different locations isn't just a matter of seeing that their telecommunications technology is in good working order. The quality of the equipment is important, of course, but it is equally important that the individuals involved realize that they must communicate clearly and explicitly with managers and fellow workers. All the non-verbal cues and much of the informal talk that play a critical, behind-the-scenes role in the functioning of an office tend to be filtered out. For this reason, it is essential to schedule periodic face-to-face meetings between coworkers, otherwise their productivity will begin to suffer.

"When workers are co-located, they share a common context," said Pamela Hinds, assistant professor in IEEM at Stanford. "People can hear over their cubicles, they absorb information through osmosis. When they're not co-located, there can be surprises. They're in different physical surroundings, with different schedules, pressures and cultures plus, they're operating in more fluid team structures and have not only geographical distance separating them but technology mediating their interactions."

Thus, while the opportunity to form global teams allows access to global expertise, Hinds warned, this expertise may be more difficult to share when workers are widely distributed.

Bonding is crucial to group performance, but "it's hard to get 'face time' when your face isn't actually there," said Hinds. It helps if a group of people collaborating from a distance know each other ahead of time, she said.

One of the much-touted advantages of working at home is that it is easier to stay focused, because there are fewer unanticipated interruptions. But, said Lotus Institute senior scientist Kate Ehrlich, "you miss out on some of the ad hoc conversation," the kind of scuttlebutt that can be key to getting promoted. Even during the more formal atmosphere of a conference call, "if there are too many people hooked up, remote workers have trouble breaking in because they don't have the visual cues," she added. (Lotus Institute is based in Cambridge, Mass., and is a unit of Lotus Development Corp.)

"There's no substitute for face-to-face contact," agreed Stu Winby, director of strategic changes at Hewlett-Packard Co., who noted that distributed work groups tend to follow a pattern: Face-to-face meetings are followed by a short burst of activity that drops off after a few weeks.

"The most productive groups have been those that went out and drank together," he said.

Silence kills and so does ambiguity, agreed Professor Catherine Cramton of George Mason University's School of Management in Fairfax, Va.

Cramton told of her study of 13 internationally distributed work teams composed of graduate business students and spanning nine time zones. "I read 1,754 pieces of e-mail, three times each. It was easy to see why they were killing each other. The bucket of information passed around was leaking all over. There was error all over the place," Cramton said.

One individual's e-mail address was inaccurately recorded, for example, so early transmissions to him got deleted, and other members of his team thought he was sloughing off. "Once these impressions are formed," Cramton said, "they're excruciatingly difficult to get rid of."

Cramton found a curious tendency among distributed workers to attribute problems to individuals rather than to situations. She confirmed this predilection with a controlled experiment of distributed vs. co-located workers. Cramton attributed some of this tendency to personalize problems to remote workers' failure to share relevant background information with partners. For instance, if a student team member has to cut back on her participation because she has an exam coming up but she doesn't tell her team members about it, they are likely to draw the wrong conclusion.

"It's difficult for us to imagine what we need to tell [remote co-workers]," she said. "And even when such information was shared, partners would sometimes forget they'd seen it."

Distributed workers have great difficulty in interpreting colleagues' silence: "The absence of a response can mean 'I agree,' 'I disagree,' 'I'm out of town' or 'I didn't realize you wanted a response.'" When there are long lags in feedback, Cramton said, these communications problems can intensify. "It's like you're in the shower and not getting hot water right away, so you keep turning it up hotter and hotter," creating a disaster.

Another source of misplaced blame, she said, was differences in relative speed of access to information, a result of different infrastructures. "The slow ones got tagged as laggards," she said. Cramton's research has led to an overarching recommendation: Seek out information about the situations of remote partners, rather than assume you know.

Jonathan Grudin, a senior researcher at Microsoft and former professor of information and computer science at the University of California-Irvine, also found that people are often blamed for problems caused by technology.

In one case Grudin studied, two groups were assembled in separate meeting rooms as part of a teleconferencing experiment. One of the rooms was equipped with the kind of two-way audio embodied in a good phone system: When people on both ends of the line are talking at once, each can still hear the other. The other room, though, had older equipment, the kind in which sound traveling in one direction causes sound from the other direction to be cut off a situation familiar to those who remember the early days of satellite long-distance telephony.

The "impaired audio" group, assuming the other group's audio capability to be similar, conscientiously adopted an ultra-quiet manner no side conversations or paper rustling so as not to cut off conversation. The other group, blithely unaware of the problem at the other end, maintained a steady pace of laughing, joking and other noise. "The second group was perceived to be 'disrespectful' by the first group, while the first group appeared 'overly formal' to the second one," Grudin said.

Cultural clashes also occur between people in traditional versus distributed settings, Winby said. Not that everybody wants to telecommute. "Some workers need an office to go to, because they feel too isolated at home. But you reward remote workers based on their results you don't spy on them," he said. So it doesn't matter if they move to Honolulu and go to the beach every day or work one day a year as long as they're meeting management objectives. But problems will arise, Winby said, when "a worker from the central office says, 'Not fair! I called her and she was at the beach!'"

Buried in such jealousy lies a hard kernel of rationality. Collective experience with telecommuting has taught managers that a lot of work that gets done is "invisible" it's not really assigned to anyone, noted the Lotus Institute's Ehrlich. Senior employees, with the biggest stores of tacit knowledge, often are doing the telecommuting and leaving junior employees to their own devices, she said. "But people often don't spontaneously call a distributed worker, because they have a mental model that he or she is working at home, so shouldn't be interrupted."

Some studies claim telecommuters are more productive and more satisfied than their office-bound colleagues. But Stanford IEEM Assistant Professor Diane Bailey voiced skepticism. Such studies, she said, are often based on self-reports. "These workers are self-selected. They chose to telecommute so of course they're more satisfied. They also tend to work longer hours, and they may be conflating that with higher productivity." In other words, they're getting more done because they're working more, not working better.

For all its vaunted family-friendliness, telecommuting carries some familial risks, Bailey said: "Kids can handle 'Daddy is at work far away.' But when you try to explain that daddy is in his office and can't be disturbed, they have trouble understanding it." Also, when you jettison the physical commute, "you lose the cooling-off period. Whatever stress you've accumulated during the workday, you have a half-hour to work off on the freeway," she said to knowing laughter.

Other relevant material:

Center for Work, Technology and Organization

NOTE: This article is available electronically on the national Eurekalert! web site


By Bruce Goldman

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints