Telecommuting and Engagement: Evaluating the Tradeoff between Autonomy and Connection

Telecommuting is defined as working from home at least one hour per week; therefore, some people probably don’t even realize they’re telecommuting. Looking at telecommuting from an employee-engagement standpoint offers some interesting insights behind companies’ recent movement to promote face-time amongst all employees.

First of all, it’s important to note that, in order to be “engaged” in one’s work, one must have basic needs met—compensation, safety, respect, etc.  That goes without saying, and we call these “satisfaction factors.”  They don’t particularly excite an employee, but when they’re not in place, that individual quickly becomes dissatisfied.  It’s a form of contract between employer and employee—you provide me with “X” and I provide you with “Y.”  Engagement, on the other hand, involves a choice to give one’s discretionary effort, often above what is “contracted” for.

Our research has shown that there are key contributing factors to employee engagement.  We use the acronym ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® as a quick reminder of these factors: Meaning; Autonomy; Growth; Impact; Connection.

But here’s an interesting polarity.  With the recent notoriety associated with telecommuting, two of these factors appear to be at odds—Autonomy and Connection.  The issue: Does offering telecommuting improve levels of autonomy?  Similarly, does limiting telecommuting increase levels of connection?

Autonomy—From an engagement standpoint, autonomy is the empowerment of individuals to control or shape career/professional dynamics associated with responsibility and environment.  Employees who work from home should, therefore (in theory, at least), have incredibly high levels of autonomy.  Why?  Because they directly control their environment, processes, and deliverables associated with their employment—much more so than they would by working at the corporate office.

Working entirely at the corporate office can still provide high levels of autonomy. Companies like Google, Skullcandy, and Apple encourage (or require) employees to devote part of their time to working on a personal, self-directed project.  This stipulation clearly promotes autonomy, while still maintaining connection between employees.

Connection—We observe instances of connection when employees develop relationships of trust and respect with their colleagues and companies (including their manager, peer, and direct reports) that enable and motivate them to collaborate, resolve conflict, innovate, and develop themselves, others, and the organization.  Many have argued (accurately, I might add) that working from home severely limits an employee’s ability to develop any significant levels of connection.

Even with tools like Google+ hangouts, Skype, email, and LinkedIn, developing relationships of trust and respect is difficult to do unless face-to-face time exists.  While telecommuting can establish professional levels of trust and respect, only social interaction can develop strong relationships between employees.  Connection is strongest when an employee feels that they can be themselves around people; their peers, colleagues, and supervisors have their back, and they are liked and appreciated.

With this evaluation in mind, we can easily see how levels of autonomy are bolstered when employees are allowed to telecommute for a significant amount of their work.  Likewise, we observe how limiting telecommuting yields positive effects on connection.

Which aspect is more important?  Naturally, every worker will value these factors differently.  I’d venture to say the introverted employee values autonomy just as highly as the extroverted employee values connection.  Is the solution really as simple as distinguishing between personality types?
5 Keys of Employee Engagement White Paper

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