Everyone dreams of the advantages of working from home: the additional flexibility; the time saved by not commuting (or getting dressed!); the ability to slip out to run an errand with the boss none the wiser. Whether the arrangement ultimately benefits the employer depends on the individual worker, of course. But new research shows that, regardless of the reality, the perception of telecommuting leads at-home workers to get smaller raises, fewer promotions, and lower performance reviews.
“To be credited with passive face time you need only be observed at work,” the study reads. “No information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it.”
Researchers break passive face time into two categories: Expected face time involves working during normal operating hours, while extracurricular face time means being present after hours, early in the morning or during lunch. When asked to recall traits of their employees, bosses were 9% more likely to describe workers who put in expected face time as “dependable” and “responsible” compared to at-home workers. Those who put in extracurricular face time got an even bigger boost, with bosses 25% more likely to call them “committed” and “dedicated.”
“People make these trait attributions unconsciously and spontaneously,” says Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC-Davis and one of the authors of the study. “They don’t know they’re doing it, yet when it comes time to make performance appraisals, those people are benefited by those kinds of attributions.”
One worker interviewed for the study talked about how a boss in crisis mode is likely to be unconsciously annoyed if an employee isn’t present during a high-pressure moment. “It’s kind of irritating to them if you’re not immediately available,” the worker said. “Because they’re in crisis mode they may not even really remember what it was that irritated them, but they’ve just got this feeling that you’re unreliable or something.”
Is this bias against the stay-at-home professional warranted? Last year Stanford University conducted a study of telecommuters at a Chinese travel agency. The telecommuters ended up being more productive and putting in more hours than the office workers, because they avoided a commute and took fewer sick days.
However, a recent study of American workers conducted by Wakefield Research found that 43% of telecommuters surveyed had watched a TV show or movie while on the job at home, and 24% said they’d had a drink while working remotely.
Every worker is different, and many have proven they can work from home responsibly. The best way to give telecommuters a fair shake, Elsbach says, is to base performance reviews on objective results.
“A lot of performance appraisals include some sort of subjective trait-based measures,” she says. “Things like: Are you a good team player? Are you a good collaborator? Do you have leadership skills? Those are the kinds of things that can be bumped by these sorts of unconscious appraisals of you as being dedicated and committed because you’re always in the office.”
There are some strategies the work-at-home types can use to show the boss they’re productive — and, to some extent, counter the bias against telecommuters. Responding to emails immediately is important because it shows that you’re just as available from home as you would be in the office. Regular phone and email updates, especially after hours, can show office workers that you know how to stay on task independently. Telecommuters should also work to be extra visible when they do come in the office and make sure their co-workers are aware of who they are.