I am intimately familiar with telecommuting and the complex communication issues that come with computer-mediated communication (CMC).
The Internet opened doors for people like myself: someone who possesses skills better suited for an urban center, but who chooses to live in a small Alabama town where I share joint custody of a pre-teen daughter.
In 2004, I left a weekly newspaper and began working from my home in the employment of a California-based web lifestyle magazine and online social network that had recently launched. I got the job after the publisher noticed a web startup I created and then purchased in order to eliminate as competition.
They asked me to produce the kind of content for them that I had produced for myself, so I did this, primarily using my desktop computer and a broadband Internet connection to exchange messages and files.
A mere 2,314 miles separated me from my home office and five colleagues, mostly tech guys, working from a traditional office in “Silicon Valley,” home to many of the world’s technology startups in the San Francisco Bay area in Northern California.
The owner — an angel investor named Dennis — paid for me to fly west on numerous occasions, explaining his concerns about the impact of my distance on the team enterprise. He was a traditional businessman who believed that companies operate best with employees operating under one roof, but he was also a family man who granted me flexibility because of my inability to move away from my daughter.
Frequent trips to San Francisco satisfied his need to see the whole team assembled in one room, yet, as a practical matter, my physical presence was unnecessary. It was truly surreal when, on one trip, I found myself sitting at a desk and communicating silently via Yahoo Messenger with a workmate who sat at a desk situated a mere yard away.
I had formed professional relationships with my five colleagues primarily via e-mail, Skype video sessions, instant messaging, and phone calls. While Skype “calls” produced the most “life-like” meetings due to the combination of sound and sight, at other times I was disadvantaged in being unable to see my colleagues, so small talk became a necessary prerequisite for initiating electronic conversations. It made such exchanges less awkward and more pleasant.
We use language-based strategies to reduce uncertainty and form impressions of each other as “self-disclosure of one’s self elicits self-disclosure from the target person, due to the norm of reciprocity” and “in the first phases of acquaintanceship, people disclose non-intimate information about a broad range of topics.” (Antheunis, 2011).
Lower levels of uncertainty make it easier to predict someone’s attitudes and behaviors, resulting in an increase in “one’s liking and affection for his or her communication partner.” (Antheunis, 2011).
The first time I met my workmates face-to-face, many of my expectations about their appearance and mannerisms smashed. I formed preconceived notions during CMCs, and the concrete reality of whom these people were betrayed many of the blanks my imagination had filled in.
It was a bit like the big reveal at the end of an episode of The Dating Game.
One of my colleagues, who I had only spoken to by phone, turned out to be an entirely different ethnicity than what I mentally pictured based on his vocal style and intonations. He sounded like a typical suburban white tech nerd when he was, in fact, an African-American who had a rap career as a sideline and grew up in the toughest section of Oakland. He developed the ability to change his voice modulation based on whom he spoke with.
During my visits to California, we invested our time after-hours in building social ties with activities such as attending a Giants game, watching a televised fight, sharing meals, and visiting nightclubs as a group. I became a party to some of their inside jokes from which I would have otherwise been excluded. It gave us a common frame of reference during the small talk that initiated our electronic conversations.
In terms of productivity, I found my workflow in the traditional office setting to be distracted in comparison to what I managed to accomplish remotely from my home office. In addition to the time spent in traffic driving to the physical office, I found it difficult to focus on phone conversations with co-workers socializing within earshot. Their workflow involved communicating back and forth with each other on technical matters, whereas mine centered more on communicating with external third parties, conducting interviews by telephone or concentrating on words as I typed articles for the web magazine. Their constant chatter made that extremely challenging.
A couple of members of the team felt jealousy at my ability to telecommute and had actually channeled their shared resentment into bonding by jointly mocking me after our sessions of electronic communications. Ironically, I knew this occurred because digital technology had captured and stored their peer-to-peer text communications (Reinsch, 2006), which I inadvertently observed while borrowing one of their computers during one such visit.
One comment I read suggested that I was likely sitting around in pajamas and wasting time relaxing at home. Yet the reality was I felt a deep sense of gratitude to my employer for allowing flexibility, often working in excess of 40 hours due to the blurring of a boundary between work and home life. My co-workers, in contrast, took multiple cigarette breaks throughout the day, were late to arrive in the morning and skipped out early — at least on the days I worked alongside them. I witnessed it frequently enough to assume it was typical.
Telecommuting can harm relationships with co-workers if not carefully managed, yet an analysis of the benefits suggests negative effects are offset by the beneficial effects on work-family conflict, increased job satisfaction, performance of work tasks, less intent to jump ship to a different job, and less work-related stress.” (Gajendran, 2007)
Getting “face-time” with my workmates proved valuable in improving socialization, justifying at least some of the cost of transcontinental flights, but it did not erase all of the challenges on raising morale. The main result, due to the intercepted statements of disdain, was an increased awareness of who not to trust.
No workplace is completely free of conflict. Being physically absent from a shared office space also means not participating in most grapevine communication and gossip unless it is shared by computer-mediated communication.
I experienced at least one instance when my colleagues in California came to me with a grievance toward our employer and encouraged me to “side” with them. On another occasion, I perceived them as playing both sides against the middle once I learned all the facts. In most situations, I was the neutral outsider who wasn’t even aware of any disagreements – and happily oblivious to silly interpersonal distractions.
Trust is key to the success of remote work (Morris, 2003). Feelings of envy, jealousy, frustration, anxiety, unfairness, and anger toward telecommuting colleagues are normal, especially if a formal telecommuting policy is lacking or the selection procedures are perceived as unfair (Octavia-Brown, 2010). The text messages I viewed clearly revealed a jealousy regarding the employer’s willingness to give me a flexible working arrangement while expecting them to drive in to work each morning.
“(Telecommuting) can pose a threat to the organization, in that it can cause attitudinal disconnections as non-telecommuting members view those who telecommute as deviants who are truly not part of the organization, or who cannot be trusted as they are no longer ‘there.’” As an example of tension resulting from this divide, some workers feel frustration from having to contend with increased workload or “shifting patterns of interruptions and disruptions due to missing colleagues.” (Octavia-Brown, 2010)
To minimize the impact of my physical absence in their office, I operated from Alabama on “California time,” which actually meant taking advantage of the East Coast sunrise while leaving my home office to view prime time television. Forcing my co-workers to come in early to accommodate me would likely have increased their resentment of my telework situation.
My manager relayed what tasks needed done and then got out of the way, allowing flexibility in when and how I performed my job as long as I met his assigned deadlines and did high quality work. Such an approach only works when a company employs someone to telecommute who can work with minimal direction and does not need someone standing over their shoulder to guarantee they are actually performing work. This brings the issues of ethics and supervisor-subordinate communication close to the discussion of teleworking.
My job situation also presented a mentoring scenario where I used a combination of face-to-face, visual CMC supported by a webcam and text-only CMC to advise and occasionally supervise one of the California employees.
It could make for an awkward situation when my subordinate went directly to the employer, who was based in the same physical office, rather than bringing an issue related to our department to the boss through me.
It required balancing flexibility with an awareness of the power structure within the company. There were times, I’m sure, when it was faster and easier to walk 20 steps and speak to the employer directly rather than going online or making a phone call to consult someone thousands of miles away who could then loop back and initiate a separate conversation. I also found it easier to do some assignments myself than to invest the time using text-only CMC to give someone else detailed instructions on what to do and how to do it.
In 2008, our company moved headquarters from California to Sydney, Australia, which created more challenges, especially when it came to coordinating meeting times because morning in Sydney was evening in Alabama.
Once I experienced difficult-to-understand thick Aussie accents, I understood how difficult it must have been for the boys in California to get past my Southern drawl. Interactions via text-based CMC helped to bridge the cultural divide in a way that speaking and listening over Skype made challenging.
It’s very telling that years later, I continue to have friendships with people I worked with and spent time around in California, but the co-workers I met through CMC-only in the Australian office (never actually meeting in “real life”) have all but vanished as social and professional contacts. I can see on Facebook, however, that one of the Australians enjoyed a recent beer-drinking social reunion during a trip to San Francisco with one of the Californians she met during his visit down under.
Social media networks that link to professional associations have made it easier to preserve work relationships that would have disappeared in the past, but sharing face-to-face contact clearly sealed a greater level of intimacy than mere CMC.
Kerry Harman (Harman, 2003) provided insight in his thesis into telecommuter-manager interactions and relationships at four organizations in Australia, theorizing that such relationships undergo three stages in a shift from controlling behavior to an emphasis on authority and autonomy, then finally commitment and support. Managers tend to treat those working remotely in different ways than those operating under the same roof, and Harman suggests teleworkers establish how they communicate with managers based on the flexibility of their situation.
“Advantages (of telecommuting) to organizations include greater productivity, lower absenteeism, better morale, reduced overhead, lower turnover, and access to a wider talent pool. Challenges include work coordination, availability, managerial control, synergy, performance monitoring, performance measurement, and managing jealousy created among colleagues who are based from a traditional office space. Most notably, while home-based telecommuting means less exposure to traffic congestion, pollution, and crime, it also represents a loss of ability to interact and socialize with others on a face-to-face basis, which can potentially impact team cohesion.” (Kurland, 1999)
Feelings of anxiety and resentment may only be natural given the Internet’s ability to displace jobs (Heusser, 2013) and give employers access to cheaper labor by sending work “offshore” (Harman).
I found the prospect of transitioning from a telecommuting scenario back to working in a traditional office unsettling, as I am sure the home-based employees of Yahoo! felt in February 2013 after reading an internal memo from HR director Jackie Reses telling them to be prepared to work under the same space or find new jobs by June (Vanderkam, 2013).
“Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” read the memo. (Swisher, 2013). “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”
Business Insider speculated that new CEO Marissa Mayer issued the ultimatum as a shrewd way of getting rid of staffers who would react angrily and quit, thereby cutting the company’s costs with “a layoff that’s not a layoff.” (Carlson, 2013)
Critics included Virgin airline’s Richard Branson, who wrote in a blog post that Mayer’s move was “a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever. To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision… Working life isn’t 9–5 anymore. The world is connected. Companies that do not embrace this are missing a trick.” (Branson, 2013)
Mayer’s move was unexpected since she had a baby shortly after taking the job, so it was particularly upsetting to working mothers who appreciate the flexibility that remote work offers when word leaked that Mayer paid to have a nursery built in her Yahoo! office, returning to work after just two weeks of maternity leave (Swisher, 2013).
Whatever Mayer’s motivations, it seems highly unlikely that we will see less remote work scenarios as technology makes geography less of a barrier.
In 2011, the Federal Communications Commission proposed to use the Universal Service Fund to subsidize rural broadband Internet services (Gross, 2011). With broadband service coming to more and more rural areas, companies will focus less on recruiting people living in urban centers, and those living in rural and suburban areas will find greater flexibility as long as they possess the education, skills and physical mediums necessary to reliably connect to the Internet.
Faced with rising costs and ferocious global competition, CEOs are increasingly using freelancers who perform the same services as salaried staff, but without health benefits, unemployment insurance or retirement plans to fund. Remote work seems particularly suited for independent contractors, who now make up a third of America’s workforce (Horowitz, 2013).
Teleworkers tend to either be skilled, well-paid professionals or cheap offshore labor hired to trim costs (Ashcraft, 2011), the most familiar example being technical support provided from a call center based in India.
I prefer to think I was hired because of my quality work, but the fact remains the company that hired me in California to work from Alabama found me very accepting of a median California salary, whereas my co-workers likely found their salaries typical of what opportunities were elsewhere around them. This no doubt contributed to the complex communications dynamic in our various interactions. On more than one occasion, my coworkers attempted to exploit my privileged work arrangement by trying to make me feel guilty so I would volunteer to share some of their workflow.
“Globalization opens collaborative opportunities, but also places competitive demands on individuals and organizations that were unthinkable a few decades ago because of the ease of offshoring work or creating global supply chains.” (Ashcraft, 2011)
Increased diversity as a direct result of the virtual workplace creates communication and teamwork challenges for managers to navigate, which brings relevant cultural assimilation issues into the discussion of peer relationships via technology.
It is possible that the future will bring a greater reliance on virtual teams created to meet a specific objective, then disbanded.
“Organizations (assess) the skills necessary to achieve the specific goal of the team, then (choose) individuals that possess these skills. The selection of individuals to be on the team can be made without regard to the geographic location of the individuals.” (Morris, 2003).
Virtual teams require members to rely heavily on information technology and trust in co-workers, making it an excellent scenario for analyzing the impact of technology on communication between remote colleagues in an organization. Virtual teams are tasked with overcoming geographical separation while coordinating among subunits and individuals (Morris, 2003).
As CMC grows in the American workplace, it is an environment ripe for studies into communication dynamics and the role of rhetoric in shaping the use of new media. Students need to “understand how new media reshape the rhetorical situation (audience, exigency, constraints) and how to use them effectively.” (Reinsch, 2006).
The cultural and social aspects of a sweeping change like switching to remote work arrangements can be neglected while companies tend to give the majority of their consideration to the quality and reliability of the technologies that make CMC possible. They focus more on the technical sustainability of the pipeline than the quality of the communication moving through it (Jackson, 1999).
Additional study is needed to understand the complexity involved in managing new work structures, as well as the know-how necessary to appropriate benefits from the technologies. New practices create a need for new theories, strategies, and attitudes from an organizational management perspective (Jackson, 1999).
Faced with a similar flexible work arrangement in a future position, I would eagerly jump at the opportunity, but if this hypothetical future job would require CMC with office-based colleagues, I would definitely apply the lessons learned from my experience to maximize interpersonal relationships while mitigating sources of conflict whenever possible.
Antheunis, M.L., Schouten, A.P., Valkenburg, P.M., & Peter, J. (1 June, 2011) Interactive Uncertainty Reduction Strategies and Verbal Affection in Computer-Mediated Communication. Communication Research. 2012 39: 757. Originally published online 1 June 2011. Retrieved February 25, 2013 from the World Wide Web: http://crx.sagepub.com/content/39/6/757
Ashcraft, K. L., Labianca, G. J., Lepak, D., Okhuysen, G., Smith, V., & Steensma, K. (2011). Theories of Work and Working Today. Academy of Management Review, 36(1), 192-194.
Branson, R. (25 February 2013) Give People the freedom of where to work. Richard’s Blog, Virgin.com. Retrieved February 25, 2013 from the World Wide Web: http://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog/give-people-the-freedom-of-where-to-work
Carlson, N. (24 February 2013) Why Marissa Mayer Told Remote Employees To Work In An Office Or Quit (YHOO). SFGate. Retrieved February 25, 2013 from the World Wide Web: http://www.sfgate.com/technology/businessinsider/article/Why-Marissa-Mayer-Told-Remote-Employees-To-Work-4304049.php
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Harman, K. (2003) An exploration of teleworker-manager work relationships in telework settings. (Masters thesis, University of New South Wales). Retrieved February 12, 2013 from the World Wide Web: http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/5575/
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Heusser, M. (22 February 2013) Will the Internet Devour Your Job? Internet Evolution. Retrieved February 25, 2013 from the World Wide Web: http://www.internetevolution.com/author.asp?section_id=2781&doc_id=259370
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