In recent years, glob­al­iza­tion and advanced tech­nolo­gies have increas­ingly given com­pa­nies the ability to allow employees to work remotely. So how has this trend changed the game for busi­nesses and the lives of their workers? We talked to Jay Mulki, asso­ciate pro­fessor of mar­keting in the Col­lege of Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, who is con­ducting research in this area and recently pre­sented at a con­fer­ence spon­sored by Care​.com in New York City.

How has telecom­muting changed the game both for busi­nesses and their employees?

Over the years, advances in com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nology and glob­al­iza­tion of busi­ness have changed the tra­di­tional work­place. You can now be any­where and be at work. At IBM, for example, work is passed along person-​​to-​​person from Hong Kong to Bombay to Ire­land to Los Angeles. Com­pa­nies realize that you don’t have to have a tra­di­tional work­place. This is becoming more and more common, and many com­pa­nies are saving on office space and travel expenses this way.

How­ever, there are some issues with working remotely. Elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion is not as rich as face-​​to-​​face con­ver­sa­tion, given much of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is non­verbal.  In addi­tion, employees are finding it to dif­fi­cult to dis­en­gage from work.

What has your research indi­cated about remote workers?

As expected, remote work and telecom­muting increased pro­duc­tivity for the busi­ness and pro­vided flex­i­bility for the employee. But we’ve found people often have dif­fi­culty get­ting away from work, and as a result, the work-​​family bal­ance may actu­ally be get­ting worse. Some people can manage it, while others can’t and often expe­ri­ence con­flicts in their work and life. In the second part of our study, we are actu­ally looking at whether the work-​​life bal­ance is real or a myth, and how man­agers can help employees achieve this bal­ance. We’ve con­ducted the sur­veys and are cur­rently ana­lyzing the results.

It’s a chal­lenge for com­pa­nies to help create this bal­ance. Smart man­agers are directing their people to have the dis­ci­pline to start and stop work at spe­cific times. They are also encour­aging them to set up their work­space as if they are in an office set­ting. There are times when all employees will put in extra time, but we’ve found that some tele­workers feel oblig­ated to work more hours and worry they can’t dis­en­gage from work.  They are feeling that the work is always there.

How does tech­nology play a role in this balance?

Tech­nology is helping in the sense that it brings people together. But our point is that while it brings them together, it also cre­ates prob­lems. We carry smart­phones every­where we go. But for vir­tual employees it can be worse because there is no other escape outlet for them. There are no easy solu­tions, but many man­agers are trying to address them and build rou­tines for their employees to main­tain this balance.