Can You Over-Communicate to Teleworkers?

Last week I read an interesting article from the American Society for Training and Development (www.ASTD.org) about a study conducted by Kathryn L. Fonner and Michael Roloff, a communications professor at Northwestern University.  The pair studied the frequency of communication related to the teleworkers’ identification with the organization.  Their findings, originally published in the June issue of Communication Monogrpahs, run counter to many commonly held beliefs about communicating to teleworkers. 

Specifically, they found that the frequency of communication to teleworkers didn’t increase the teleworkers’ feelings of attachment with the organization.  Furthermore, they discovered that teleworkers experience more stress from interruptions when communication increased, whether it was email or even face-to-face.  This, in turn, negatively impacted their feelings of attachment to the organization.  Ironically, office workers experienced more stress from interruptions compared to teleworkers but this didn’t impact the feelings of closeness office workers had with their organization.

As I have always argued, you can never communicate too much.  As it turns out, I may be wrong.  Office workers may be numb to the constant walk-in interruptions or other office distractions whereas teleworkers may expect more freedom from the constant barrage of work interruptions.         

The study does give us some potential lessons for all managers:

  1. Communicate when necessary, not just to insure teleworkers are connected.  Often, managers may feel the need to touch base with teleworkers very frequently to make sure they are connected or that they feel included.  Managers who are frequently communicating with teleworkers to ensure they are actually working should let go and recognize that they are doing more harm than good.  The study did point out that teleworkers feel just as connected to the organization as office workers do and there isn’t a need to communicate just to make teleworkers feel part of the team.
  2. Understand the work patterns of your team.  Everyone works a little differently.  Managers should seek to understand the work habits and styles of the people reporting to them.  Some may need more attention than others.  Managers can tailor their communication practices based on the needs of the team.
  3. Quality over quantity.  Don’t inundate your team with email.  In today’s work environment, many people, whether they work from home or an office, complain about the massive volumes of email they receive.  Make sure your communication (especially emails) have a purpose and get to the point.

I think it is worth pointing out that preparing an organization to begin teleworking is a little different than an organization that is already teleworking and considers teleworking just part of the job.  For organizations just starting down this path I still feel that leaders need to constantly communicate to solicit feedback, answer concerns and questions, and gain buy-in.  However, the study points out that leaders can scale back the communication once employees are comfortable with teleworking.

-Jason 

 

 

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