Remote work is getting more popular each year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2005 and 2015 the number of U.S. employees who telecommuted increased by 115%. That’s a lot! There are many concerns about allowing employees to work from home. That’s why, in this article I’d like to demonstrate how working in distributed teams affects productivity, creativity and morale.
Managers are scared of lower performance
The first concern employers have regarding remote work is the loss of productivity. They are scared that without physical control over people they will start to slack off. If there is no manager walking through the office and asking questions, employees may be sitting in front of a computer doing everything but their real duties. That’s a reasonable concern.
But how is it according to the studies? Since remote work is getting more and more popular, I believe it’s worth analyzing what science says about remote workplaces.
Remote work is great for certain positions
There are jobs that are better suited for a remote environment than others. Timothy D. Golden and Ravi S. Gajendran already defined what kind of positions may profit the most on it. According to their study , these include knowledge workers who can do most of their work on a their laptops and don’t require significant amounts of collaboration or social support. These can be, for instance, software engineers, insurance claims adjusters or call center workers.
They can write software code, create reports, spreadsheets or call customers remotely. They just need laptops and the internet. But the most important part for managers is that their job can undoubtedly be remotely monitored. You can easily see how much code is created by each software engineer or how many insurance claims are verified by an adjuster.
In their study , Timothy D. Golden and Ravi S. Gajendran examined 273 teleworkers from sales, marketing, accounting, engineering and other departments in one organization and they analyzed whether telecommuting impacted their job performance. The result indicated that there was a positive association between the extent of remote work and job performance. Simply speaking, employees, who held complex jobs with a low level of interdependence, performed better when they had the ability to work remotely. Why is that?
Complex jobs require focus
Huge office spaces are full of potential interruptions. There is always something going on. Someone comes to you asking for help, there may be an ad-hoc meeting or somebody just wants to chit-chat. All those small interruptions negatively affect workplace efficiency. That’s why jobs that require exorbitant problem-solving skills don’t go hand in hand with busy settings.
“Employees whose jobs require concentration or significant problem-solving often need focused time to think deeply about the task at hand. (…) In a shared office full of potential interruptions, that can be hard to do.”
Software engineering is a perfect example of such a job. Code development is a complex activity, which requires uninterrupted focus. You need to stay fully concentrated while looking for the best solution. That’s for sure. And imagine what would happen if some guy from the office just walked up to you to talk while you were right in the middle of a complex thinking process? Even if it was just for a brief chit-chat, you’d instantly lose focus and it wouldn’t be easy for you to get back to your task.
I know that there are some people who believe they can execute a couple of tasks simultaneously. That they can have an interesting talk, reply to emails and at the same time, do some other duties. But it’s a delusion. You’re actually not doing those tasks simultaneously. Instead you just quickly switch between your assignments and the cost of that is pretty high.
Humans are not good at multitasking and we need to live with that. The more complex tasks we perform, the more time we lose on switching between them  and that lowers our efficiency. It may seem productive on the surface, but in the end, it actually takes up more time and leaves more room for errors. It’s not easy to get back to complex duties after a sudden interruption. And the risk of being interrupted in a huge office is quite high.
Telecommuting increases job satisfaction
But work is not only about efficiency and performance. It’s also about satisfaction and engagement. Only when those two conditions are met can an employer keep the teams of motivated employees in the company, which will contribute to the overall business success.
In another study , Timothy D. Golden and his colleagues also found that telecommuting not only increased performance but also job satisfaction and the feelings of commitment to an organization. Moreover, people who worked remotely tended to experience less work stress and exhaustion. It may be caused by many factors.
According to a survey conducted by flexjobs.com, there are several reasons for increased job satisfaction. Remote workers are less scared of getting sick. They tend to take fewer sick days, most likely due to less exposure to germs. But it’s also more convenient to work from home when they already experience some health issues.
“When dealing with mental health issues or experiencing a difficult situation, not being relegated to an in-office, 9-to-5 job can allow people to work when they are able and to prioritize taking care of themselves”
Respondents said that thanks to telecommuting it was easier for them to arrange a doctor’s appointment, make time for self-care or exercising. All in all, flexible work options improve work-life balance and make employees happier in general.
Work from home isn’t for everyone
But let’s make it clear, not all jobs and activities are suited for telecommuting. A software engineer can write a code remotely, a salesperson can call a potential client outside the office and a marketing expert can create a monthly report at home. But there are certain duties which are performed better in-house.
One example is conducting a performance review with a subordinate. Although technology enables us to perform any kind of communication via various applications, in this case it’s better to have it face-to-face. All duties, which may involve non-verbal communication, including providing feedback, discussing salary raises and promotions, are better suited for face-to-face interactions. According to Timothy D. Golden’s observations, they seem to go more smoothly when they are handled in person rather than online.
Remote work and social isolation
Although there are many benefits of remote work, we cannot forget about the disadvantages that can come with this option. The first concern is that it’s easy for employees to feel isolated. Working remotely makes it more difficult to establish relationships with coworkers. Even if you use teleconferencing or other communication tools, you don’t have a possibility to grab a coffee with your teammate or have small talk in a social room. There are fewer opportunities to bond over shared experiences, because typically you work alone in your own home.
Fortunately, there is a potential solution to that issue. One meta-analysis , conducted by Ravi S. Gajendran and his colleagues, found that telecommuters’ relationships with their colleagues only suffered when they worked remotely at least three days a week. That’s why if you feel like working from home is destroying relationships among your teammates, maybe it’s worth considering a limit to the number of days spent away from the office.
Remote work and work-life balance
Along with social isolation and weak relationships, there is also the risk of clouding work-family boundaries. When you work from home, there is no physical and psychological separation between your private and professional life that normally exists in a traditional office setting. You wake up at home, eat breakfast, work, eat lunch and then enjoy your private life all in one place. As Timothy D. Golden says:
“Teleworkers operating from a home office lack the physical and psychological separation between these two domains that exists in a traditional office setting.”
What’s more, a study conducted by Kimberly A. Eddleston and Jay Mulki  found that remote work increased the risk of work–family integration conflicts. It’s because working solely from home encourages employees to work overtime and spend more time on their jobs than if they worked in a regular office.
Telecommuting and remote work policies are becoming standard practices among today’s employers. It’s because many types of jobs do not require employees to be physically present in the workplace. Although many employers are aware of the benefits of remote work, there is still a lot of debate on whether telecommuting is good for job performance and commitment.
According to current studies, it looks like there are more advantages to remote work than there are drawbacks. As a psychologist, Bradford Bell, PhD, said:
“Employees who telecommute tend to be slightly more satisfied, and their performance tends to be the same or a little higher.”
But researchers also caution that telecommuting is rarely an all-or-nothing arrangement. You don’t need to implement full time remote work right away. Instead, you can consider setting up telecommuting a few days a month or a few days a week. Just to see whether remote work will improve productivity and make your workplace better.
Also keep in mind that remote work can improve employee productivity, creativity and morale only when it’s done right. If you’re interested how to build a powerful distributed workforce and manage it effectively, I recommend you read my e-book which will be published in 2021.
 Timothy D. Golden, Ravi S. Gajendran. Journal of Business and Psychology, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 55–69. February 2019. Unpacking the Role of a Telecommuter’s Job in Their Performance: Examining Job Complexity, Problem Solving, Interdependence, and Social Support.
 Joshua S. Rubinstein, David E. Meyer, Jeffrey E. Evans. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4, 763-797. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching.
 Tammy D. Allen, Timothy D. Golden, Kristen M. Shockley. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 16(2):40-68. October 2015. How Effective Is Telecommuting? Assessing the Status of Our Scientific Findings.
 Ravi S. Gajendran, David A. Harrison. Journal of Applied Psychology 92(6):1524-41. December 2007. The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown About Telecommuting: Meta Analysis of Psychological Mediators and Individual Consequences.
 Kimberly A. Eddleston, Jay Mulki. Group & Organization Management 42(3). December 2015. Toward Understanding Remote Workers’ Management of Work–Family Boundaries: The Complexity of Workplace Embeddedness.