By Tina Vasquez

Studies have shown that working remotely benefits employees and employers alike through increased productivity, reduced overhead, and happier workers, but what happens when managers work remotely? According to Timothy Golden, associate professor of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), no studies had been done on the topic. After researching teleworking for 10 years, Golden decided to conduct a study to measure the effects on employees when their managers telework or work virtually. What resulted was Does It Matter Where Your Manager Works? Comparing managerial work mode (traditional, telework, virtual) across subordinate work experiences and outcomes. What Golden discovered might make employers think twice about letting managers work remotely.

According to the study, managerial telework and virtual work alter the nature of relationships between the subordinate and manager because the absence from the office brings about changes in how the subordinate and manager interact. Specifically, when a manger works remotely it adversely affects subordinates in the following areas: feedback, clarity, empowerment, professional development, workload, job satisfaction, turnover intentions, and work climate.

Though these are just preliminary findings and extensive research is still lacking, Golden’s study revealed that:

  • Subordinates with a manager who teleworks or works virtually are likely to experience a degraded quality in their exchanges with the manager in the form of reduced feedback subordinate and their manager who teleworks or works virtually are likely to be less clear than if the manager worked in a traditional work mode.
  • Subordinates with a manager who teleworks or works virtually are likely to experience impaired exchanges that adversely affect their sense of empowerment because greater restrictions are placed on their ability to obtain information and approvals needed to carry out their job.
  • Subordinates are less prone to receive the same level of professional development compared to if their manager worked in a traditional work mode.
  • Greater absence from the office may hinder the ability to accurately gauge the work efforts and activities of subordinates, resulting in the inappropriate assignment of job tasks and workload.
  • Job satisfaction is apt to be lower among individuals whose managers telework or work virtually.
  • Subordinates of managers who telework or work virtually are likely to have higher turnover intentions compared to those with managers in traditional work modes.
  • Subordinates with managers who telework or work virtually are likely to experience a less positive work climate compared to those with managers in a traditional office.

“I didn’t know what to expect when first embarking on the study because no real research has been done looking at managers who telework,” Golden said. “This is just an initial study in the area, more research is needed. It’s important to note that the differences are small when a manger works away from the office, meaning that what’s been discovered- the adverse effects- are not insurmountable.”

Informal vs. Deliberate

What’s interesting about Golden’s findings is that we live in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology and this is especially true of the workplace. But, despite this fact, an employee’s workplace satisfaction still seems to be tied to the physical presence of their manager in the office. According to Golden, the answer for this is simple: virtual interactions are not as fulfilling as those experienced in person. When looking at the results of a manger working remotely, those in which subordinates receive reduced feedback, don’t feel empowered, have lowered job satisfaction, etc., the issue seems to be the lack of informal interaction with their manager. In other words, a great deal of feedback, direction, and interaction happens informally in the workplace, while passing your manager in the hallway or walking past their office. That doesn’t happen when your manager works remotely, as every bit of feedback must be deliberate and getting clarification or obtaining direction requires waiting around for e-mails or scheduling phone conferences.

“Face-to-face interactions continue to be important because as research has found, face-to-face interactions are necessary for trust development. It makes a lot of sense: who are you going to trust more, someone you only e-mail with or someone you personally interact with each day?” Golden asked. “It goes both ways, however. When a manager works remotely the trust becomes fragile on both ends. The manager has to trust that their subordinates are doing their work correctly and subordinates have to trust that their managers will be realistic about their workload and treat them appropriately.”

Interestingly, when a subordinate and manager both work remotely, it leads to positive results. Kyra Cavanaugh, present and founder of Life Meets Work, an award-winning flexible work consultancy, says this is because when both are working remotely, they’re forced to figure out better ways to communicate.

“Having an absent boss can be incredibly frustrating and managers who work outside of the office have to realize the impact their absence has on in-office employees and create systems to make them feel more connected,” Cavanaugh said. “I would venture to guess that the reason why things improve when both the manager and employee work remotely is because they realized that not being physically present each day presents a series of problems and they’ve had to map things out to ensure they’re communicating effectively and giving each other what they need.”

Impacting Team Dynamics

A big part of Cavanaugh’s job is making companies realize that remote work options, though highly beneficial, impact the dynamics of a team, which is why companies need to invest in helping teams figure it out. For those companies in Golden’s study who have offered managers flexible work options, Cavanaugh says the study should serve as a wake-up call. Meaning, if employees aren’t being offered the opportunity to work remotely, managers shouldn’t be either because the company obviously hasn’t figured out how to properly put flexible work options in place.

In Does It Matter Where Your Manager Works?, Golden writes that organization decision makers need to initiate training programs for managers who telework in order to increase awareness about the adverse effects that can result from a manager working away from the office. The problem, says Cavanaugh, is that many managers are ill-equipped to be managers, let alone manage remotely.

“We do training with managers from around the country and I firmly believe that managers should already have certain skills in place, especially as it pertains to communication, before they can even think of working remotely,” Cavanaugh said. “A recent study found that over 60 percent of managers haven’t received any type of formal training. That’s a huge obstacle to get over.”

Tips for Making it Work

If companies are serious, however, Cavanaugh does have some tips that may be able to turn around some of the adverse effects of a manager working remotely, as outlined in Golden’s study. The first tip, and perhaps the most important, is making communication deliberate. Because you won’t be bumping into each other in the hallway anymore, Cavanaugh strongly suggests scheduling team meetings or one-on-one meetings at least once a week that way employees know that every week they’ll get some face-to-face time with their manager.

Tip two focuses on managing performance, which ties back to the issues of trust Golden discussed earlier. How do managers know what work is getting done when they’re not in the office and how do employees know if the manager knows what’s getting done? This is why status updates become so crucial when a manager is working remotely. Cavanaugh recommends that employees send their manager a daily e-mail detailing what they accomplished and what obstacles they encountered and wrapping it up by asking what they’re working on next. Communicating what’s being done is a way of creating transparency and it will go far in helping managers and employees feel more connected and in the loop.

According to the director, employees either love or loath team building, but whatever their feelings, one fact remains: sharing information when together can make teams feel more trusting and in sync. Cavanaugh recommends doing a sort of virtual book club where everyone on the team reads the same business book and then shares an important tip or lesson they learned over e-mail or during the next meeting.

Another important aspect of offering flexible work options to managers or employees is measurement. According to Cavanaugh, only 7 percent of organizations track the ROI of their flex programs. Opening up the communication about what’s working and what’s not working about a teleworking manager is crucial, but employees must be made to feel safe if they want to tell their manager that they don’t answer their phone or don’t respond to e-mails quickly enough.

“The most important thing to come out of this study is the realization that extensive research needs to be done to learn more about workplace dynamics when a manager or other key figure works remotely,” Cavanaugh said. “When a company offers flexible work options it’s a big, big change and they need to acknowledge that. You’ve got to go back to management basics and figure things out now that you’re not sitting next to each other.”