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Telecommuters: Invisible workers?

Those who work from home struggle with isolation. But few would give up the arrangement.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2008

During the six months that Allison Brinkman worked at home as a public relations manager, she savored the advantages.

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"I didn't have to dress up, fight traffic, or worry about paying for doggie day care," she says.

But she found disadvantages, too. "I missed the social aspect of being part of a team and developing a rapport with colleagues," says Ms. Brinkman, who works with Eisen Management Group in Cincinnati.

As the ranks of telecommuters grow – pushed by soaring gasoline prices – some in the work-from-home crowd point to disadvantages surrounding what many office-bound workers might assume is the ultimate deal.

A feeling of isolation counts as the biggest challenge many of them face, says Jay Malki, marketing professor at Northeastern University in Boston. He conducted a study for IBM, where more than 40 percent of workers do not come into the office every day.

Remote workers also express concerns that they are invisible and their work is not being recognized. "Isolation happens when telecommuters can't get the support they need," Professor Malki says. "When face-to-face communication isn't possible, workers need a substitute – and voice mail isn't it."

Communication via instant messaging and e-mail can also be misunderstood without vocal intonations or facial expressions, says Lindsay Gibson, director of training at VIPdesk, an Alexandria, Va. firm that supports home-based call centers and concierge services.

Supervisors attempt to address isolation

What does make a difference is a good manager. "A supervisor is more important than ever before in helping people deal with isolation, recognition, and visibility," Malki says. "People who are happy in remote work had very good supervisors. [The supervisors] took time to speak to them often, support them, and take care of them by tooting their horn for them."

To do that, supervisors must hone a new set of skills. "It requires new ways of creating connection among employees and new skills in reading body language via phone or e-mail," says Nancy McGuire, a management consultant in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Instead of being the hierarchical command-and-control type who only asks, 'Have you met your quota?,' those who supervise remote workers need to be more like coaches, Malki says.

In large companies, he found that attentive supervisors make it a point to visit off-site workers periodically. Some even hold virtual birthday parties, complete with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for the honoree.

Yet supervisors face their own challenges.

"As the manager you can't look over someone's shoulder and see what they are doing wrong, or point out mistakes or give praise on the spot," Ms. Gibson says. "It takes dedication from the supervisor to seek out ways to interact and provide feedback."