Researchers examining new and emerging work forms not following the traditional “9-to5 schedule” often explore the impact of opportunities for employees to work remotely by teleworking or telecommuting (Nilles 1977). Teleworking may be defined as any form of work that substitutes information technology for work-related travel, so that work travels to the employee instead of the reverse (Hylmö 2006). While working remotely has been a part of organizations for generations (for example, making cloth for entrepreneurs in the textile industry), the 1970s oil crisis, coupled with increased technological capabilities, spurred interest in large-scale teleworking. Teleworking was especially encouraged during the 1990s as a way for employees to balance work with other commitments, thus enhancing overall quality of life. In the United States, the practice resurged following the September 11, 2001. attacks on the World Trade Center, as many people wanted to decrease their commutes and work closer to home.
Telecommuting and telework function as alternative work forms offering organizations and individuals an opportunity to transition to virtual organizing by using technology to transfer information to workers as opposed to employees traveling to work. In general, telecommuters work outside the principal office – for example, at a client’s office, at home, or at a telecommuting center – on only an occasional basis, while teleworkers, or virtual workers, complete their tasks “anytime, anyplace” and work remotely on an ongoing basis (Hill et al. 2003).
Teleworking employees establish different relationships to their colleagues compared to co-located workers, as they are not available for the immediate face-to-face interactions and meetings that are normative in many organizations. Individuals working off-site often appear available to family members, neighbors, and friends for tasks and assistance unrelated to their work. Combined with experiences of loneliness and loss of professional identity, teleworking challenges the ways that employees communicate with each other as well as in non-work-related contexts (Brocklehurst 2001).
Researchers have used several theoretical frameworks to explore telecommuting as a communicative phenomenon. Structurationists have shown that teleworkers who are part of successful virtual teams may adapt their communication media use and adoption depending on the group’s geographic dispersion (Timmerman & Scott 2006). Network theorists have explored teleworkers’ levels of identification with their teams and organizations, finding that role conflicts and isolation may lead to decreased experiences of connectedness with colleagues (Vega & Brennan 2000).
Teleworking offers opportunities for creative organizing while potentially fragmenting and breaking apart traditional workplaces and company cultures (Hylmö & Buzzanell 2002). The opportunity to take advantage of teleworking opportunities may position some companies as leaders in employee relations, but may also lead to divisions between teleworkers and non-teleworkers. These distinctions may be reinforced by other factors, including the reasons for seeking out alternative work forms. Individuals who telework while transitioning into retirement likely interact differently with colleagues than those who still view themselves as on the career track.
Critical theorists raise concerns about the need for teleworkers to sustain images of productivity, working longer hours than their in-house peers out of concern that they appear committed to the employing organization. Telework challenges organizations by contesting what constitutes work, working, and legitimate locations for professional work (Hylmö 2006). In-house employees feel awkward contacting teleworkers operating out of their home offices by phone, while teleworkers laud their ability to communicate with colleagues and clients anytime, anyplace. Despite limited empirical evidence (Bailey & Kurland 2002), teleworkers argue that they are more productive and available to important stakeholders by being flexible in their workday.
Critical and feminist approaches examine how teleworking challenges traditional distinctions between public and private realms (Shumate & Fulk 2004). Scholars argue that teleworking threatens boundaries between “home” and “work” as the home comes under the surveillance of employers seeking to control workers (Broadfoot 2001; Brocklehurst 2001). The home no longer provides a refuge from the workplace when paid labor spills over into private life. Role spillover may be particularly challenging for women, as traditional gendered divisions of family labor remain. As a result, many teleworkers seek to reify traditional boundaries between home and work by maintaining separate offices or strict work hours during which they enact only a professional persona.
Teleworking continues to provide opportunities for future communication research, including organizational implications at multiple levels, the impact of demographic factors, and international comparisons as teleworking becomes integral to multinational corporations’ ability to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
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