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The trouble with telework

Updated: May 1


The numbers are in, and they are pretty astounding. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 1 in 4 people employed in February 2021 teleworked or worked at home for pay because of the pandemic. This is down from 35 percent in May 2020, the first month data were collected.


But there is a problem.


There is no doubt that teleworking was invaluable as a tool to help create social distance and combat the pandemic. But its long-term utility is undercut by how much we really trust online communication.


Telework is incredibly useful and was a boon for many people caught with conflicting responsibilities during the pandemic. This was especially true for working parents with school-aged children who found themselves inheriting unanticipated day care and home school responsibilities. Something had to give. Fortunately, many organizations were able to make accommodations for work at home arrangements.


Telework is good for managing tasks.


Telework shined when work involved tasks that were discrete, divisible, and independent. These tasks are less effected when teams are fragmented and communication with co-workers and supervisors is constrained. These tasks also rely less on integrating our efforts with the work of others. So far so good. We can still work and get things done.


But, unfortunately, telework begins to run into trouble and lose its power when tasks are not so clearly defined, not divisible into independent chunks, and are interdependent. As task complexity and the need to talk and coordinate rises, the utility of telework falls.


Of course, there are a lot of collaborative and networking tools available to us. These tools allow us to continue to talk, share ideas, and manage work together. But unfortunately, they have limitations.


This is where our internal psychological mechanisms kick in and start to give us trouble.


Telework is not so good for emotional and trust conversations.


Think about it. What do you really trust more, a face-to-face conversation or a conversation via video or chat? Are you more or less willing to fully share, say something private, emotional, contentious, or unpopular in a personal conversation or via video?


Teleworking platforms have natural limitations for two reasons. First, we do not trust that they can provide needed privacy. Even if in a private chat, we are not sure that it will not be recorded and seen by others. We know that online conversations have a nasty habit of resurfacing later, especially when we do not want them to. And, we are not certain that online information will always be used in a positive manner.


Secondly, this inherent lack of trust leads us to change our behavior. We limit exposure and more carefully manage risk. Simply put, online conversations have an infinite shelf-life and we know it. This creates an instinct to limit exposure, and that means not communicating fully. Not communicating fully often means not communicating effectively.


Teleworking and video conferencing are great for tasks. But they are not as good when we need to have emotional or trust conversations. Our instinct to be guarded and to protect ourselves will simply not allow it to happen.


Personally, I expect a backlash against telework and tele-education once the pandemic is over. Distance arrangements were a necessity during the pandemic, but studies are beginning to show that they were often a poor replacement for being there. We already know that students failed, sometimes dramatically failed, to meet expected academic progress during pandemic-related home schooling.


Telework can be convenient, almost seductively so. But you have to balance your short-term and long-term interests. You have to ask yourself, what is my desired career path? Can I achieve what I want through telework? For some people the answer may be yes. But already many people are returning to work, re-establishing work relationships, and creating an impression that they are sacrificially dependable during crisis. Competing against this investment in social capital from home will likely prove difficult.


I suspect that there may be an urge in organizations to gain efficiencies by terminating excess employees. You have to ask yourself, does my telework position put me at risk for getting fired? I have already witnessed many conversations at work about long-term telework employees that simply end with “Oh, he hasn’t been here for a year.” If someone was not needed last year, why will they be needed next year? In the long-term, will your telework position be eliminated or be at risk to be outsourced offshore?


We know that there has been a growing trend for remote work arrangements over the years and that it was accelerated by the pandemic. However, as we exit the pandemic and return to a more normalized work environment, we need to carefully consider our inherent needs to personally interact with each other to build trust, engage in personal conversation, to establish closer social relationships, and to anchor our value within our organization.


Interested in more insights? For my books and blog, see https://www.jamesmcginley.com.


James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.


(Image by Mikayla Malleck on Unsplash)

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