Remote workers suffer from a 'trust gap'

2005

Almost half of people who work from home say that their isolation from the office makes them feel alienated, underappreciated and mistrusted, even though they often work harder than their office-based colleagues.

A study of 350 remote workers across Europe by IBM's Institute for Business Value and the Economist Intelligence Unit also found that four out of 10 feel that colleagues believe they are slacking by working from home.

This was particularly true of respondents from the United Kingdom, where almost half said their co-workers questioned their work effort and contribution.

Almost half of those surveyed also felt that they missed out on the 'water-cooler' conversations and other social networking aspects of office life and that it is more difficult to develop relationships with work colleagues in a mobile environment.

Without this social capital, remote workers often find it challenging to learn about new job opportunities, identify shifts in organisational direction and mobilise resources on an informal basis.

As one survey participant remarked, mobility makes it "harder to understand the real situation and to have a more realistic view of what's going on."

In a similar vein, more than half of those surveyed said that one of the biggest problems they faced was participating in meetings when they were working remotely, with six out of 10 saying that better technology is needed to connect them to the office.

"The greatest challenge is to co-ordinate work with other mobile workers and meet the deadlines for common tasks," said one participant.

"We are seeing the benefits of better working hours, productivity and work-life balance," said IBM's Eric Lesser.

"But many mobile workers feel distrusted, and overcompensate by spending more time online to show the company they are contributing."

Indeed the report found that mobile workers often work harder and longer than their office-bound colleagues in an attempt to overcome traditional misperceptions of home-based workers' level of contribution to the organisation.

Six out of 10 said that it was difficult to switch off from work and many said they felt a compelling need to check for messages in the evenings and at weekends for fear of missing something important.

As a result, the report found, this continuous attempt to justify their working Arrangements led many to find themselves neglecting the work-life balance that may have initially attracted them to remote working in the first place.

One respondent, when asked about the challenges of working in a mobile environment, said, "None, other than management's suspicion that I am not putting in a full day's work – there is an obsession with control and visibility that I have found impossible to change, even though the overall productivity and performance of my team has actually benefited from giving them the option to work from home."

Without this sense of trust, the report warns, mobile workers may perceive that they are being relegated to a second-tier status in the minds of their peers and the corporation as a whole.

The report suggests that companies can overcome much of this mistrust by developing an outcome-based performance measurement system that levels the playing field between remote and office-based workers.

They could also do more to ensure that employees (and their managers) have the appropriate skills and capabilities to work in a mobile environment and provide visible corporate and managerial support for mobile workers.

As one respondent said, "If company managers suspect that employees do not work productively from home, they could try evaluating the concrete results of remote workers…they might be surprised at how much more work is done when employees are allowed to control and take responsibility for completing tasks."