Can Telecommuting Hurt Your Career?

Amid the pluses, there are potential downsides to telecommuting. Here's how to head them off.

Telecommuting is a good thing for both employees and employers in many ways — including less stress for workers and increased productivity, Kim Elsbach, a professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, told Convene Podcast’s Ashley Milne-Tyte. But there are potential downsides for you and your career, she warns, including the risk of fewer promotions and lower performance evaluations compared with more visible coworkers. “It’s to your benefit to be aware of those potential risks so you can head them off,” Eisbach says.

Milne-Tyte also talks to Karen Malone, vice president of meetings and sales for HIMSS, a happy telecommuter, about the nuances of working remotely and how she and her staff make it work.

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Intro music composed by David McMillin

Read the full transcript:

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Welcome to the Convene podcast. I’m your host, Ashley Milne-Tyte. In this show we’re talking about telecommuting. The number of Americans who work from home has leapt 100 percent during the last ten years, and the trend looks set to continue. We have advice from a meeting planner who works remotely full-time…

Karen Malone: I think you need to think about your work style as well as your life style. I think the kind of energy you thrive off is really important.

AM-T: And a professor of management who’s studied what your presence at the office can signify…

TK: Just being seen at work during normal work hours is related to perceptions of dependability and reliability.

AM-T: Coming up – the pros and cons of telecommuting. Convene magazine is published by PCMA, the Professional Convention Management Association, and it offers fresh perspectives on meetings and events. You can find Convene online at pcmaconvene.org

Karen Malone is vice president of meetings and sales for HIMSS – the Healthcare Information Management and Systems Society. She’s been with the organization for almost 20 years and she used to live and work in Chicago. But her commute from the suburbs was an hour and a half each way. She was getting tired of it, especially of having to waste so much time on the train. So she started off working from home one day a week. Then it went to two, then three. Finally, about a year ago, she and her husband moved to Tennessee, and she now works from home full-time. I got her on the phone at her home office. She says the change was an adjustment, but not a hard one…

KM: For me it’s very easy because I’m pretty much a routine type of person. And so I found that I would keep the same schedule as if I was going to the office, I’d get my coffee in the morning every day…

AM-T: She’d run out, get it, come back, and settle down to work. She tries to take a proper lunch but admits it’s usually a pretty short break. And she says having a dedicated work space – an actual office at home – is helpful. In fact at her organization that’s the rule. To do this, you must have a dedicated space – no working at the kitchen table.

AM-T: What has been the difference between working remotely and working at the office? I mean there are the obvious things like you don’t have our colleagues around you but what are the things perhaps we don’t think about, those of us who don’t do it all the time?

KM: The really funny thing is, it definitely is a lifestyle change for me, but one of the biggest changes is the lack of exercise. I don’t get as much exercise because I’m not commuting back and forth – I used to walk back and forth to the office or walk a little bit to go outside and grab a bite to eat for lunch, things like that. So the lack of exercise has been a challenge for me. So what I’ve done to address that is, because one of the benefits of being home- based is I gain more time in day. I’m not wasting 90 minutes each way commuting. Therefore I take that time and I’ve joined a gym, a health club.

AM-T: She heads there at the end of the day. But it’s not just less moving around that took some getting used to. There’s the whole other people thing.

KM: You mentioned, you know, with the colleagues in the office. But also, the lack of interaction with colleagues outside the office. The meetings, the social interactions, lunch activities and things like that that I’d partake in when I was in the office and in the city. So what I try and do now is I come to Chicago every four to six weeks to meet with my staff and when I do that I try to also schedule time with our suppliers that I can have face time with them as well, and colleagues in the industry.

AM-T: I mean you said you’re a routine person, you’re self-disciplined. Would you say that it’s really important to have those traits before you embrace this as a new work style?

KM: Absolutely, I think you need to think about your work style as well as your life style. I think the kind of energy you thrive off is really important. Frankly if I didn’t have the amount of travel I have and the opportunity to have the level of face time I have with my staff and other colleagues, I would find this work environment very challenging for me because I do feed off and thrive off the energy of face to face interaction.

AM-T: So she says it’s important to consider that aspect of your personality as well as how disciplined you are before you make the switch. And that did make me wonder…

AM-T: Have you ever encountered anyone in your work who has started telecommuting and then thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t right for me, I’m going to go back to the office?’

KM: I actually do. I know of someone in our office who was working full-time telecommuting and is now back in the office three days a week. Because she found it was hard for her to really focus while she was working at home, she just found that she could focus much better, and she needed that office interaction.

AM-T: Interaction isn’t only good for you socially, it’s also good for your career. Kim Elsbach is a professor of management at the graduate school of management at UC Davis. One of the areas she looks at is how perception works at the office.

Kim Elsbach: So what we found in a study of face time in a corporate office context is that just being seen at work during normal work hours, no interaction required, no knowledge of what you’re actually doing, just merely being seen passively, is related to perceptions of dependability and reliability.

AM-T: In other words you’re seen as dependable and reliable just because you’re there – you could be doing your weekly grocery shop online for all your manager knows, but your mere presence leaves the impression that you’re a good worker. And she says these beliefs – they’re totally unconscious – but they can influence bosses’ behavior.

KE: And moreover we found that if you’re seen at the office outside of normal work hours, early in the morning, late at night, on the weekends, in addition to those perceptions you get credit for being committed and dedicated. And those kinds of perceptions are important to being promoted into managerial positions, the perception that you’re highly committed and dedicated to the organization.

AM-T: Which sounds a bit worrying if you work from home. One of the conclusions of her research? That employees who work remotely may get lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions. Which sounds pretty awful.

KE: Yeah, it does, and again it’s unconscious on the part of the observer. In a lot of performance evaluation metrics there will be subjective trait measures, like ‘Is Ashley a team player, does she display leadership capabilities, does she show commitment to her work?’ And those kind of subjective ratings are highly susceptible to what we call face time bias – that we’re going to rate you higher on those kinds of things because we’ve seen you a lot. We don’t know really why we think you’re more reliable, dependable, committed and dedicated. But the end result is that we have those perceptions because we’ve seen you at work a lot.

AM-T: And although Kim’s research hasn’t looked at what actually happens – or doesn’t – with promotions, other research has. One study was carried out on China’s biggest travel agency. It found remote workers were promoted at half the rate of their colleagues in the office. I spoke to Karen Malone about this. I asked, has any of this come into play for you? She said not at all. 

KE: I have several staff as well as myself that work fulltime, we’re home office based. And I find we’re much more focused and accessible. As a matter of fact I just promoted my director of exhibit services to senior director of exhibit services just about a month ago. So we do not really find that promotions are impacted whatsoever because of a work/home environment. As a matter of fact I think staff work very well with it. And we find that productivity has increased.

AM-T: And just to be clear that director she promoted also works at home. Karen says her own supervisor is also based out of a home office. And she thinks it makes a difference that she does get out and about because of her job.

KE: Fortunately in the line of work we do in the hospitality industry, I travel a lot – I had 24 trips last year, I believe I have 22 budgeted for this year, so I find I have plenty of time to get out and have face time with my supervisor and/or my staff.

AM-T: She says so far, her home set-up has more pluses than minuses.

KE: First of all, I think my staff, my colleagues, my supervisor, everyone would say I’m much more accessible. I’m here, I’m in my home based environment. When I was in our Chicago office I was running from meeting to meeting, here and there and back and forth. Now I’m taking all of my conference calls and meetings in my home office and if I see another call come in I can quickly reply to it on another line or through email, so I multitask a lot.

AM-T: In a good way. She says she’s gained so much time back, and she loves that. She can also breeze through projects because she has fewer distractions. And one more thing – she got this advice from a colleague and she really likes it. She says you do lose that every day, ‘how’s the family’ kind of chit-chat when you’re not physically in the office. So she makes sure that when she talks to her direct and indirect reports she does a bit of that on the phone – just so they know she still cares about their lives, and it’s not ALL business. Kim Elsbach of UC Davis agrees the shift to telecommuting can be a boon not just to individuals, but to society as a whole. 

KE: I think in general that telework is good in many, many ways. It reduces stress, it improves productivity in many jobs, it’s better for the environment. There’s all kinds of benefits from it so I don’t want to see it go away. But I think buyer beware – you have to know there are potential downsides for you and your career depending on your situation, depending on the way you’re evaluated and how you compare to other people at work. And it’s to your benefit to be aware of those potential risks so you can head them off. 

AM-T: So she says if you do have the opportunity to work from home, sit down with your boss first and talk about how you’ll communicate and how your work will be evaluated. 

That’s the Convene podcast for this time. There’ll be another show soon.

If you have any feedback on the show we’d love to hear from you. You can shoot an email to convenepodcast@pcma.org.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.

Ashley Milne-Tyte