Telecommuting, also called telework, teleworking, working from home (WFH – the most common term in the UK), mobile work, remote work, and flexible workplace, is a work arrangement in which employees do not commute or travel (e.g. by bus, bicycle or car, etc.) to a central place of work, such as an office building, warehouse, or store. Telecommuting came into prominence in the 1970s to describe work-related substitutions of telecommunication and related information technologies for travel. Teleworkers in the 21st century often use mobile telecommunications technology such as a Wi-Fi-equipped laptop or tablet computers and smartphones to work from coffee shops; others may use a desktop computer and a landline phone at their home. According to a Reuters poll, approximately “one in five workers around the globe, particularly employees in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, telecommute frequently and nearly 10 percent work from home every day.” In the 2000s, annual leave or vacation in some organizations was seen as absence from the workplace rather than ceasing work, and some office employees used telework to continue to check work e-mails while on vacation.
In the 1990s, telecommuting became the subject of pop culture attention. In 1995, the motto that “work is something you do, not something you travel to” was coined. Variations of this motto include: “Work is something we DO, not a place that we GO” and “Work is what we do, not where we are.” Telecommuting has been adopted by a range of businesses, governments and not-for-profit organizations. Organizations may use telecommuting to reduce costs (telecommuting employees do not require an office or cubicle, a space which needs to be rented or purchased, and incurs additional costs such as lighting, climate control, etc.). Some organizations adopt telecommuting to improve workers’ quality of life, as teleworking typically reduces commuting time and time stuck in traffic jams. Along with this, teleworking may make it easier for workers to balance their work responsibilities with their personal life and family roles (e.g., caring for children or elderly parents). Some organizations adopt teleworking for environmental reasons, as telework can reduce congestion and air pollution, with fewer cars on the roads.
Job characteristic theory
Some of the potential benefits and drawbacks of telecommuting can be explained by job characteristic theory, which proposes that the traits and tasks of the job itself affect employees’ work attitudes and behavior. If five characteristics of a job are present (skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback), then the employee in that job will experience more internal work motivation, satisfaction with personal growth opportunities, general job satisfaction, higher job performance, and lower absenteeism and turnover. Many studies have provided evidence that job characteristics influence employees’ behaviors and attitudes. Additionally, job characteristics can interact with individual differences to impact employee attitudes and behavior. Of these five job characteristics, telework specifically changes autonomy and feedback compared to face-to-face work and can thus influence employees’ behaviors and attitudes. According to Job Characteristics Theory, changes in autonomy and feedback influence work behaviors and attitudes more than a change in skill variety, task identity, or task significance.
Autonomy influences experienced responsibility such that if the job provides freedom, independence, and scheduling flexibility, the individual should feel responsible for his or her work outcomes. Telework provides flexibility in scheduling and freedom because being outside the office gives the worker more choices. Teleworkers do not have to stick to office routines and can shift work to different times of day. Telework allows employees the freedom to choose where they work, when they work and even what they wear to work to allow their best work. Teleworkers may experience more responsibility to the extent that they feel in control and accountable for their work. The autonomy of telework allows for lower work-family conflict. Teleworking provides the freedom to arrange work to avoid family conflicts. Increased control over life demands is one of its main attractions. The level of autonomy in telework felt by the employee depends on a variety of factors, including scheduling flexibility and the household size. In addition to reducing work-family conflict, conflicts with activities are also reduced. Increased and fewer time restrictions freedom allow workers to participate more in recreational activities, whether social or physical. However, studies also show that autonomy must be balanced with high levels of discipline if a healthy work/leisure balance is to be maintained.
The job characteristic dimension, feedback, increases employees’ knowledge of results. Feedback refers to the degree that an individual receives direct and clear information about his or her performance related to work activities. Feedback is particularly important so that the employees continuously learn about how they are performing. Electronic communication provides fewer cues for teleworkers and thus, they may have more difficulties interpreting and gaining information, and subsequently, receiving feedback. When a worker is not in the office, there is limited information and greater ambiguity, such as in assignments and expectations. Role ambiguity, when situations have unclear expectations as to what the worker is to do, may result in greater conflict, frustration, and exhaustion.
Communication personalized for individual needs is important for feedback interactions. People differ in their need for communication and their level of social connectedness to their environment, partially because of personality and temperament differences. Although the level of communication may decrease for teleworkers, satisfaction with this level of communication can be higher in some samples, like those who are more tenured and have functional instead of social relationships. Feedback and communication can also be affected by a manager’s location. The clarity, speed of response, richness of the communication, frequency, and quality of the feedback are often reduced when managers telework.
Skill variety, task identity, and task significance
Three of the five job attributes: skill variety, task identity, and task significance, influence how much employees think their jobs are meaningful. Skill variety is the degree that a job requires a variety of activities and skills to complete the task. An increase in skill variety is thought to increase the challenge of the job. Increasing the challenge of the job increases the individual’s experienced meaningfulness, how much the individual cares about work, and finds it worthwhile. Telework may not directly affect skill variety and task meaningfulness for the individual compared to when he or she worked in an office; however, skill variety and meaningfulness of individual tasks can increase when working in a group. If the work done at home is focused on the individual rather than the team, there may be fewer opportunities to use a variety of skills.
Task identity is the degree that the individual sees work from beginning to end or completes an identifiable or whole piece of work rather than only a small piece. Task significance is the degree that the individual feels his or her work has a substantial impact on the lives or work of other people within the organization or outside the organization. Telework may not change the job characteristics of skill variety, task identity, and task significance compared to working in an office; however, the presence of these characteristics will influence teleworkers’ work outcomes and attitudes.
Individuals may differ in their reactions to the job characteristics in telecommuting. According to job characteristics theory, the personal need for accomplishment and development (growth need strength) influences how much an individual will react to the job dimensions of telecommuting. For instance, those individuals high in growth need strength will have a more positive reaction to increased autonomy and a more negative reaction to decreased feedback in telecommuting than those individuals low in growth need strength.