Communication Overload: Give Teleworkers Some Space

May 31, 2012
The best way employers can help telecommuting employees do their jobs and feel connected may be to give them some space. A new study suggests that too much communication with teleworkers might make these workers feel stressed instead of more engaged or connected with the organization.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) compared teleworkers (defined as employees who regularly work at least 3 days a week outside of the office) with office workers and examined how the use of various forms of communication might impact teleworkers' feelings of closeness to others. The study also considered stress that might result from interruptions.

"It is often assumed that teleworkers need a lot of communication and contact with the organization in order to diminish their sense of distance and to develop a sense of belonging," said Kathryn Fonner, UWM assistant professor of communication. "But we found that the more teleworkers communicated with others, the more stressed they felt due to interruptions, and this was negatively associated with their identification with the organization."

Less is More

While feeling a sense of closeness with others during workplace interactions was associated with positive organizational identification, the study suggested that the negative relationship between stress from interruptions and organizational identification was stronger. One possible reason, Fonner explained, is that teleworkers consider fewer interruptions as being one of the perks of their remote work arrangement.

"When teleworkers feel they are constantly interrupted, this may decrease the value of organizational membership for them, and diminish their attachment to the organization," she said.

Other key findings include:

  • The benefits of frequent communication with others were minimal and not significantly related to teleworkers' or office workers' sense of closeness with others in workplace interactions, regardless of the communication mode used (face-to-face, phone, email contact, instant messaging and/or videoconferencing).
  • Office workers reported significantly greater levels of stress due to interruptions compared to teleworkers, but their organizational identification was not affected by this stress.
  • For teleworkers, stress from interruptions was associated with increased face-to-face communication, email, instant messaging and videoconferencing. For office workers, stress was only related to increased face-to-face and email communication. Results indicate, however, that phone communication generally did not induce the same degree of stress as the other modes.

According to Fonner, these findings emphasize a need to address the stress and time pressure associated with the constant barrage of workplace communication. She suggested that teleworkers should manage their connectivity to balance the benefits and drawback of communicating with others. Organizations, meanwhile, should streamline communication and consider limiting mass emails, reducing the number of weekly meetings and fostering an environment where employees can schedule uninterrupted time to work.

The study, co-authored with Michael Roloff, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, appears in the June issue of Communication Monographs, published by the National Communication Association.

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