Understanding the mysterious resistance to remote work has been a defining theme of Management Professor Kevin Rockmann's research since 2004.
The recent rise of remote working is perhaps the biggest shakeup to professional work in generations, with its explosive effect amplified by the fact that it struck so suddenly. While the technology needed to work from most anywhere was widely available since the mid-2000s, the hold of physical offices persisted until the pandemic forced the issue.
Kevin Rockmann, a professor of management at George Mason University School of Business, says, “From about 1997 or ’98, until the pandemic, we see a very steady increase in the amount of telework and remote work. Every year during this time, data shows roughly a one-percent increase in terms of folks that were working at least some of the time from home. We know this from U.S. Census data and EU data.”
He elaborates, “I think what we saw with this slow linear creep is that remote work is not really anchored to the technology. It was a slow diffusion, first among employees that wanted to work from various locations and were granted that autonomy by their employers, then secondarily amongst their coworkers who had less reason to work onsite. We also saw organizations going partially or fully virtual in order to save on real estate costs. Even with this though pre-pandemic numbers stayed relatively modest, despite easy access to technologies that facilitate remote work.”
Now that peak Covid seems to be behind us, the resistance to remote work has re-emerged. According to LinkedIn data, the percentage of remote employees fell almost 20 points between January 2021 and January 2023. Advertisements for remote work positions on the platform decreased from 20% to 14% between Feb. and Sept. of 2022.
One defining theme of Rockmann’s research career–dating back to his 2004 PhD dissertation has been understanding this mysterious resistance. After all, no one denies it’s more convenient to work from home. Getting rid of the commute frees up hours of time per week, which presumably should translate into happier, harder-working employees–and higher productivity for companies. On paper, at least, it’s a win-win. Is it only force of habit that keeps us tethered to physical offices?
Rockmann points to his 2015 paper, “Contagious Offsite Work and the Lonely Office: The Unintended Consequences of Distributed Work,” (co-written by Michael G. Pratt of Boston College), in which he found that for workers at a Silicon Valley tech firm, social pressures, not convenience, were driving the decision to work remotely. As the office became a lonelier place to work, employees opted to stay home when they otherwise would have preferred co-location with their colleagues.
Rockmann says, “What many are failing to understand is the point of that 2015 paper, which is, ‘Okay, maybe you can do your job from home, but connecting with others is part of your job.’ A lot of the unwritten part of someone’s job is either helping somebody else do their task or actually providing some sort of support to somebody else. That is part of being in an organizational community.”
That doesn’t mean remote work resisters are necessarily correct. Rather, it indicates the need for managers to find creative solutions for keeping workers socially engaged. As Rockmann puts it, “Implementing remote work means rethinking and more importantly, defining, what it means for each and every person to be at work,” whether a given employee is fully remote, on-site or hybrid. This could be done, for example, by building social expectations into job descriptions. However, many leaders resist this because defining the nature of work is unlikely to make everyone happy, and no leader wants to be unliked. The result? Little to no action, with leaders wandering empty halls hoping folks show up.
Currently, Rockmann and a team of researchers are launching company-based field studies “looking at co-worker dyads [i.e. pairings] and capturing daily variations in their location of work. Are they together in the office, both off-site, etc.? Then we’re going to look at how those daily variations change outcomes such as trust, conflict, and learning,” he says.
These studies are designed to discover how remote working arrangements are impacting employee and well-being, and performance.
It’s too soon to know what this ongoing research will reveal, but Rockmann has his hypotheses. “In Microsoft they found that for the folks that were fully remote, after the pandemic their strong ties were just as strong, but their weak ties were far weaker. They weren’t able to cultivate new ties, new acquaintances, new collaborations,” he says.
For Rockmann, the Microsoft study seems to suggest that the impersonal nature of all-digital communication is at odds with social cohesion. On a day-to-day basis, employees may not need plentiful connections with colleagues to get their core tasks done. But the danger of a diminished social network is that “when you run into trouble, you’re not going to have strong relationships to fall back on.” While helpful, this but scratches the surface of describing what actually happens when individuals are remote or face-to-face with their coworkers, and, more importantly, how organizations might craft policies going forward.
Rockmann’s research–both published and in-progress–works toward helping companies analyze and address this challenge, so that they can successfully manage the best remote work environment for them.
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