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UC Davis study finds telecommuting can be hazardous to your career

June 9, 2010

Working from home has many advantages. By cutting out the commute, employees can save money, boost productivity and reduce their carbon footprint.

But there is one significant drawback, University of California, Davis, Professors Kimberly Elsbach and Jeffrey Sherman have discovered: Telecommuting can be hazardous to your career.

In a pair of studies — one involving in-depth interviews with office workers and another using a behavioral experiment — the researchers found that being present in a workplace gives an employee an important edge. When bosses and co-workers see an employee at work, they tend to think more highly of that person. And their evaluation is even more favorable if the sighting is after normal business hours.

"Merely being seen — often from a distance and without any interaction or real understanding of what a person is doing — that in itself has value," Elsbach says. "People notice."

Elsbach, of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, and Sherman, of the UC Davis Department of Psychology, teamed with University of North Carolina management professor Dan Cable on the first-ever academic study of "passive" face time — when workers are simply seen in the office without any interpersonal interaction.

Their findings were published in the June issue of the journal Human Relations.

To understand the implications for at-home workers and their employers, the research team conducted hour-long, open-ended interviews with 39 managers, inquiring about their understanding of face time and how it functions in their workplaces.

The managers tended to ascribe positive attributes to people who were seen at work.

“If you were there in normal hours, you were viewed as dependable and reliable," Elsbach says. “If you were seen outside of normal working hours, you were viewed as committed and dedicated."

The researchers then presented 60 working professionals with a written description of a scenario in which an office worker was present and observed by others. Later, participants in the experiment were asked to identify traits of the person in the scenario. The respondents tended to ascribe positive attributes to the person getting the face time.

Sometimes people are aware they use face time to evaluate employees, but most often the process is probably unconscious.

“Our study showed that inferences are likely to be made spontaneously, without deliberate thinking or awareness," Elsbach says.

In light of these findings, Elsbach offers advice for managers: Be aware of face-time dynamics when conducting performance appraisals. She also recommends eliminating the widely-used "trait-based" reviews in which employees are gauged on whether they are a "team player," "good leader" or other vague characteristic. Workers who have recorded a lot of face time will tend to score better in this type of evaluation, according to Elsbach.

“And not being at the workplace will lead to attributions that are the opposite of those positive traits," she says.

Many flex-time workers are aware of their disadvantage and use various strategies to compensate, the researchers found. Some stay glued to their computers and respond immediately to e-mails to give the impression that they are always present at work. Others send e-mails late at night to appear to be working after business hours.

Meanwhile, anxieties over job security are driving a curious trend: many employees feel there is more pressure than usual to be in the office, according to recent media reports. Although companies are offering employees more chances than ever to work outside the office, fewer workers are accepting the offers for a more convenient schedule. Blame it on the recession, work-life experts say.

Elsbach advises telecommuters to document their tangible accomplishments, and to capitalize on days when they do come into the office.

"When you're there, make sure you spend your time interacting with people," she says. "Be sure to get face time when you can."

About the UC Davis Graduate School of Management

Established in 1981, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management provides management education to 120 full-time MBA and more than 450 Working Professional MBA students on the UC Davis campus, in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. For 15 consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked UC Davis among the top 10 percent of MBA programs in the nation. Only 35 business schools share this track record. The Financial Times, The Economist and the Aspen Institute's Center for Business Education rank the UC Davis MBA program among the best in the world. http://www.gsm.ucdavis.edu

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has 32,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds $600 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

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