Working from home? Research finds employee self-regulation is the key to success

Working from home
Tom Merton/iStock
Nick van der Meulen
Assistant Professor in Information Management
University of Amsterdam
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With working out of the office a regular occurrence and virtual necessity in many organisations, Nick van der Meulen of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) has carried out research which highlights how best to manage those remote employees.

Telework is growing fast across Europe and North America, but how should employees be managed that cannot be seen at their desks from 9 to 5?

Can they be trusted to work just as hard as their colleagues at the office? Are they more motivated if they can decide for themselves when and where to work? These are among the dilemmas facing both workers and managers.

Traditional management practices relied heavily on the physical boundaries of the office - where employees were visible and thus easily observed - to adjust, coordinate, divide, and evaluate work.

The removal of these boundaries means that the focus of control and strategies of regulation have to change: it is typically suggested a shift has to take place towards management of the work rather than the worker, in an environment where trust is the norm.

The study found that managers’ trust is a key enabler of employee autonomy, leading to equal-or-better job performance of teleworking employees.

Failing to offer such trust (and resulting autonomy) was found to be highly detrimental to teleworkers’ job performance, which questions commonly held beliefs that performance is achieved through managerial or peer control.

Fears that telework offers a “slacker’s charter” in which teleworkers will become detached from the organisation (causing reduced motivation and/or reduced work effort) have further been proven unsubstantiated by the study.

The lack of shirking is evidenced by a positive relationship between the extent of telework and number of hours worked.

Furthermore, full-time teleworkers in the study (on average) performed just as well as those who did no telework at all — even under conditions of infrequent communication with the manager, low peer performance monitoring, and no outcome reward systems.

Data was gathered from 1450 employees at four public and private organisations that have telework arrangements in place, to assess the effect of management control methods on job performance.

Employees and managers were asked a series of questions, which included the frequency of employees’ communication with their manager, the extent to which they work out of the office, their job performance, the level of peer monitoring, the presence of results-based reward systems, and the relationship they have with their manager.

Yet while such findings might already provide managers with a base level of trust and assurance that relinquishing their own control over teleworkers may have no detrimental effect on employee performance, there are also things that managers can actively do to support teleworking employees.

To aid employee self-regulation, managers could, for instance, provide employees with additional insights into their performance or the effects of their work.

Similarly, to help employees better judge their own performance through a collective frame of reference, managers should create greater transparency regarding peer performance.

This means that much of the same activities or technologies that would formerly be used to control employees are better used to support employees in controlling themselves.

One of the key success factors to telework, however, involved communication.

Frequent communication may not only help teleworkers to feel more supported, visible, and less isolated, but it may also help managers in their assessment, adjustment, and coordination of teleworker’s activities.

We found that managers need to support employees through frequent communication, ideally several times a week. This will help to maintain a trusting relationship with their employees, which forms the basis for the provision of employee autonomy.

We further advocate that managers provide employees with absolute freedom to decide for themselves how to best do their jobs. This is likely to result in increased teleworker job performance and prevents negative work behaviours.

The research also pointed to managerial (control) practices that have to be avoided, such as inequitable treatment, work monitoring through ICTs, or short to medium-term target setting.

These would simply curb opportunistic behaviour and thereby constitute a breach in healthy working relationships with employees.

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