Technology gives us the option to work in locations beyond conventional offices, both partially - termed teleworking - or as a full-time 'virtual' worker. We now understand that remote workers experience certain challenges such as isolation and less access to resources. But there is scant research on the consequences of a teleworking or virtual manager. Fortunately, a new article gets us up to speed.
Investigators Timothy D Golden and Allan Fromen surveyed over 11,000 employees from a Fortune 500 company based in the US. The online survey asked each respondent to report - for themselves and for their manager - what their work mode was: traditional (in the office full time), teleworking away for a consistent fraction of the work week, or fully virtual. It also measured a host of work experiences and outcomes. Respondents managed by teleworking managers reported receiving less feedback and professional development, a more unbalanced workload and feeling less empowered. A similar negative pattern was found for those with fully virtual managers. The effect sizes were small overall, suggesting this needn't be a make or break issue, but the trend was there.
The authors interpret this in terms of social exchange theory. Working relationships that are partly virtual have less opportunities for rich exchanges, with communications lacking the face-to-face component and fewer obvious opportunities to 'grab a moment', described by social innovator David Engwicht as spontaneous exchanges. Interactions are likely to be more task-focused and obligatory, as email is more onerous to produce when compared to a quick coffee or moment in the corridor. And professional development and mentoring becomes similarly laborious, always a dangerous place for any 'important to do' but non-urgent activity to be.
How about those respondents who themselves worked remotely? The data suggests they have a similar experience regardless of their manager's work mode. The authors had predicted this group would experience better conditions when their manager also worked non-traditionally: they would both experience comparable challenges and make efforts to find mutually productive outcomes. But in reality, higher scores on the outcome variables were only found in a few instances and were extremely small. This suggests that if you don't share physical space with your manager, it doesn't matter much where they happen to be.
It's worth noting that in the US, rates of teleworking dropped between 2008 and 2010. Perhaps organisations and individuals have begun to appreciate that the attractions of remote working are tempered by modest but genuine drawbacks.