Volume 7 , Issue 4 - August 2012 Print | Email
Teleworkers: A little less communication, please!

 

Telework has become an increasingly prevalent work arrangement in the U.S., but adoption has been somewhat slower than originally predicted. In part, this may be linked to the assumption that working remotely isolates employees and in turn may inhibit their development of a sense of organizational identification, or feelings of belonging and attachment to the organization. This is especially a concern related to employees teleworking the majority of the time, as they are more removed from the daily face-to-face interactions and organizational practices that are assumed to help shape a sense of attachment to the organization and feelings of identity as an employee. We conducted a research study that explored these issues and challenged some of the inherent assumptions regarding teleworkers’ communication and their organizational identification.

Teleworkers use various modes of communication (e.g., email, phone, instant messenger, videoconferencing, face-to-face) to remain connected to their colleagues and manager. By communicating frequently with others, teleworkers may experience positive and negative outcomes that affect their organizational identification. Frequent communication may help teleworkers establish a sense of closeness and connection to others in their workplace interactions. However, frequent communication may also generate stressful interruptions and detract from the benefits of the remote work arrangement. In our research study, we tested these potential outcomes of frequent communication and analyzed their influence on teleworkers’ organizational identification.

We surveyed employees who regularly telework at least three days a week (teleworkers) and compared their responses to those of employees who work alongside their colleagues in an office or shared workspace at least three days a week (office workers).

How is communication related to feeling close to others in workplace interactions? 

For teleworkers and office workers, the benefits of frequent communication appear to be minimal. For both groups, more frequent communication (using email, phone, instant messenger, videoconferencing, and face-to-face modes) does not significantly increase feelings of closeness with others.

In addition, working remotely does not hinder teleworkers’ sense of personal connection with others. Although teleworkers were more reliant on all forms of technology and less likely to communicate face-to-face compared to office workers, both groups experienced similar levels of closeness with others in their workplace interactions.

How is communication related to feelings of stress? 

Teleworkers’ frequent communication with others has distinct disadvantages. The more teleworkers communicate with their colleagues and manager using email, instant messenger, videoconferencing, and face-to-face communication, the more they feel stressed due to interruptions. Rather than feeling isolated, teleworkers may feel overly connected to their organizations.

Office workers also experience stress from interruptions stemming from their face-to-face and email communication. Overall, phone communication was not significantly related to feeling stress from interruptions.

What influences teleworkers’ sense of organizational identification? 

Feeling a sense of closeness with others during workplace interactions helps teleworkers to feel more attached to their organization. However, an even stronger relationship exists between teleworkers’ level of stress from interruptions and their organizational identification. When teleworkers experience stress due to interruptions, they feel less attached to their organization.

The more teleworkers communicate with others (using email, instant messenger, and face-to-face communication), the more stress they experience due to interruptions, and the less they feel identified with their organization. 

Key takeaways 

First, contrary to common assumptions, more communication is not always beneficial. Teleworkers who communicate more frequently with their colleagues and manager do not feel a greater sense of closeness in their workplace interactions, but experience increased stress from interruptions. Rather than facilitating remote work, frequent communication appears more likely to detract from the benefits of working away from the office.

Second, it is often assumed that working remotely will isolate teleworkers, and that in turn they will experience challenges forming an attachment to the organization. Our study counters these assumptions. Our findings indicate that teleworkers’ feelings of organizational identification diminish when they feel overly connected to, rather than isolated from, others in the organization. When teleworkers are in frequent contact with others, they experience stress from interruptions, which in turn leads to a lower sense of organizational identification. Teleworkers’ attachment to the organization appears to be hindered by stressful interruptions brought on by frequent communication with colleagues and managers.

Third, teleworkers and office workers may have different expectations and reactions related to workplace communication. Although office workers experienced more stress from interruptions compared to teleworkers, stress did not interfere with their feelings of organizational identification as it did for teleworkers. Employees working primarily in an office or shared workspace may expect or become immune to the effects of ongoing communication. Conversely, as a part of the remote work arrangement, teleworkers may expect a certain degree of autonomy, flexibility, and time to work uninterrupted. To attain this, they may anticipate less frequent communication with their colleagues and manager. When these expectations are not met, teleworkers may begin to perceive fewer benefits associated with being a part of the organization.

Recommendations 

Teleworkers should proactively communicate with their colleagues and managers to set shared expectations regarding levels of communication and connectivity. Often, teleworkers’ frustration stems from office workers’ tendency to overcommunicate in an effort to ensure teleworkers are not being left out of the office communication loop. Teleworkers may need to engage in boundary management in order to prevent overcommunication and stressful interruptions from interfering with their work. Whereas office workers may shut their office door or indicate in other ways when they are not to be disturbed, teleworkers must find alternative ways to communicate these boundaries. By proactively managing communication expectations and setting boundaries, teleworkers may establish productive work patterns with their colleagues that also enable them to avoid stressful interruptions and to attain the benefits of their remote work arrangement.

Organizations need to address the stress and time pressure associated with the constant barrage of workplace communication. For both teleworkers and office workers, several modes of communication were associated with stress from interruptions. Organizations should promote streamlined communication practices such as limiting mass emails, decreasing the number of weekly meetings, creating information stores and other spaces where employees can proactively access information, and fostering an environment where employees can schedule uninterrupted time to work.

 

 



About the Authors:

Kathy FonnerKathryn L. Fonner, Ph.D. (fonner@uwm.edu), is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Milwaukee, WI, USA.
 


 
 
 
photo - Michael RoloffMichael E. Roloff, Ph.D. (m-roloff@northwestern.edu), is a Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, USA. This essay appeared in the August 2012 issue of Communication Currents and was translated from the scholarly article: Fonner, K. L., & Roloff, M. E. (2012). Testing the connectivity paradox: Linking teleworkers’ communication media use to social presence, stress from interruptions, and organizational identification. Communication Monographs, 79(2), 205-231. Communication Monographs and Communication Currents are publications of the National Communication Association.

  Communication Currents is a publication of the National Communication Association
Copyright 2013, NCA | About Communication Currents | For Media | For Instructors