Remote possibilities: The curious case of remote workers who work better than office workers

Published: Monday, Sept. 3 2012 10:40 a.m. MDT

A recent survey suggests remote workers may be more productive and engaged than their on-site cohorts.

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Scott Edinger didn't have any particular expectations when he gave the survey. It was just a typical set of leadership and development questions, the type consultants use all the time. But Edinger was giving it both to employees who worked in the office of an investment company and to its employees who worked at home.

"It was out of pure curiosity," he says.

The remote workers — people who were not located with their bosses and co-workers — were actually more engaged and committed to their jobs than people who worked on-site.

As companies look for ways to save money in a recovering economy, and as employees look for workplace flexibility to improve their quality of life, remote working is on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 19 percent of all wage and salary workers work from home on a typical weekday. And working from home doesn't seem to hurt productivity, either. For example, Stanford conducted an experiment with Ctrip, a Chinese travel website company, and found that employees who worked from home were 13 percent more productive than employees who worked in the office.

Edinger's survey of about 50 workers found that remote workers were "a couple tenths of a point" more engaged and committed than their office-bound colleagues. His results, although not rising to the level of the Stanford study, were not entirely surprising to him. Edinger is the founder of Edinger Consulting Group, the co-author of "The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate" and blogs for the Harvard Business Review. He has worked remotely and works with remote workers often.

"I know people who are in their offices and say they never see their managers and never talk to them," Edinger says. "They are behind a closed door, they are in and out, they are on the road. And they never see them except when they have team meetings and everybody is in from out of town."

But somehow it doesn't seem right that people who are far away would be doing as well or better than people in the office.

"Even the word 'remote' conjures up working in a far place," Edinger says. "It makes us think of not being connected and being away from the center of things."

The center of things is, traditionally, the office.

Work has changed

Lionel Robert is an assistant professor of information in the University of Michigan's School of Information and is an expert in "team collaboration in virtual environments." He says says Edinger's survey results do not surprise him, either.

"Ten or 15 years ago it may have been different," Robert says. "But now everyone is online. Even in the same office, people communicate more with email than in person."

Robert says the effectiveness of remote working depends a lot on the nature of the job. "In the traditional environment, supervisors wanted to see the work as it was being done," he says. "Today, much work is monitored more by the results. The type of work done by knowledge workers lends itself well to being monitored online."

With email, texting, smartphones, conference calls and the like, workers are engaged in virtual ways regardless of where they work. "We are all remote workers," Robert says.

Edinger talked with the Deseret News about the survey results and his blog post at Harvard Business Review in which he speculated on four reasons why remote workers were, well, less remote:

1. Proximity breeds complacency.

"People tell me, 'My manager is down the hall from me, but he might as well be 3,000 miles away," Edinger says. "And I know people whose managers are 3,000 miles away, but they feel very closely connected."

2. Absence makes people try harder to connect.

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