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4 myths about telecommuting

Les articles du Détecteur de rumeurs sont rédigés par des journalistes
scientifiques de l’Agence Science-Presse. Les Fonds de recherche du Québec et
le Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire sont partenaires du Détecteur de rumeurs.

Auteur : Agence Science Presse – Catherine Couturier

Telework was making slow progress for decades. But now, forced by the pandemic, 63% of Quebecers suddenly find themselves working remotely. Is telework an advantage or not? The Rumour Detector tried to verify if some of the ideas circulating about telework are myth or reality.

1) Are workers less productive doing telework? False

Out of sight, out of mind? In Canada, the percentage of employees working a few hours at home increased very slowly for 20 years. It rose from 10% in 2000 to 13% in 2018. Employers skittish about telework often justify their reluctance by claiming employees eventually will be less productive.

Some studies show the opposite. A scientific literature review published in 2019 indicates that several studies associated remote work with a productivity increase. A frequently cited study of 16,000 employees of a Chinese call centre even attached a number to this rise in productivity. It was 13% for home workers (increase in the number of calls taken per minute and reduction in the number of breaks). Given these encouraging results, the firm restored the option for all its employees to work at home. Productivity then surged by 22%. This is one of the rare studies to perform this exercise.

The research explored in this literature review cites several factors to explain the productivity increase. People work more because of the time saved on transportation. Or because their employer offers them more flexible conditions, they “compensate” by giving more of their time.

What if this increase in productivity turned into a decline? In 2007, a meta-analysis by the University of Pennsylvania addressed what is sometimes called the telework “paradox”. Telework improves the sense of autonomy (and productivity). But it blurs work-family boundaries and reduces the quality of social relations. In return, this supposedly reduces productivity! The meta-analysis surveyed 46 studies of 12,883 workers. It concluded that this paradox isn’t validated by the data. In fact, telework has more advantages than disadvantages for workers.

A cautionary note. These studies are relatively rare. They come from several disciplines, including human resources, industrial relations, management and sociology. These disciplines don’t all use the same calculation methods or the same bases of comparison. The authors of the 2019 literature review acknowledged this makes it more difficult “to draw firm conclusions”.

2) Does telework favour mental health and welfare? It depends

The University of Pennsylvania meta-analysis reports that telework provides (small) beneficial effects. One is the perception of autonomy. Another is the smaller number of work-family conflicts. These benefits would be greater when a person teleworks more than 2.5 days a week.

On the other hand, in the 2019 meta-analysis, some studies report that telework can lead to a form of professional isolation. This has an impact on productivity… especially if the worker spends more than 2.5 days a week working remotely.

Technological advances may ease this problem. Videoconferences and the proliferation of communications tools help reduce the worker’s feeling of isolation. A small study dating from 2011 suggested that employees who used “enriched” means of communication were more satisfied and performed better. At the time, this meant video calls or Skype.

The sense of control people have could be beneficial, another literature review reported. This one was conducted in 2010 by the Cochrane Group. It was interested in flexibility at work (but didn’t note any study dealing directly with telework). The review reported that actions increasing people’s control of their work (choice of schedule, gradual retirement, etc.) has positive health effects. These effects concerned blood pressure, fatigue, mental health and sleep quality.

3) An advantage against contagion? True

Presence in a work environment represents 20% to 25% of weekly social contacts. Epidemiological studies show that social distancing of workers, including telework, reduces the number of flu cases.

4) Are workers more satisfied with telework? True

This is probably the issue on which the most studies agree. Job satisfaction is one of the most frequently reported consequences of telework. Flexibility, leading to a sense of greater autonomy, would also be a key factor in this satisfaction.

Trying to tie these results to the current lockdown could present a limit. This is an anxiety-provoking context for some. Many workers also have to deal with their children at home. That’s without counting the lack of preparation for the transition to telework. An Université de Montréal study is in progress. It analyzes productivity, innovation and the desire to continue telework after the pandemic.