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Work at Home Perceptions: The Faces of Telecommuting

By Christy Schutz

As you probably know, I tend to write from the perspective of the work from home employee vs. the work from home entrepreneur. Telecommuting has definitely been a hot topic for corporate America and the target of multiple studies, particularly in the midst of the economic downturn. Organizations can save money and increase an employee’s satisfaction by allowing them to work from home all or even just a part of the time. But at what cost? There are some distinct challenges that remote employees face, too. One is in the area of manager perception. As remote workers, we run the risk of letting our “out of sight” status take us off our manager’s radar screens. Despite what we are contributing, it can be perceived that the folks in the office are working harder and are more dependable than those of us who work from home.

I recently read an article about one particular study that demonstrated this. It was conducted by two noted academics, Kimberly Elsbach, a professor at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis, and Daniel Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School. They discovered that being seen around the workplace plays a big, albeit unconscious, part in a manager’s perception of an employee’s traits. And when speaking of being seen, they were not talking about the time that we spend in meetings or actively engaging with coworkers and clients. They were referring to just the act of “merely being seen in the workplace,” an idea they coined as “passive face time.”

Elsbach and Cable went on to identify two specific types of passive face time: “expected face time” and “extracurricular face time.” Expected face time is defined as “being seen at work during normal business hours,” whereas extracurricular face time was termed as “being seen at work outside of normal business hours” (e.g. coming in early, staying late, putting in time over the weekend, etc.). It is what they found out about those two types of face time that I found most fascinating (and concerning):

“The two forms of passive face time lead to two kinds of “trait inferences,” or conclusions about what type of person someone is. Specifically, we found that expected face time led to inferences of the traits “responsible” and “dependable.” Just being seen at work, without any information about what you’re actually doing, leads people to think more highly of you. You get labeled when you put in extracurricular face time, too. But rather than just being considered dependable, you can get upgraded to “committed” and “dedicated.”

Again, it didn’t matter how much work the employee was actually doing or how well they were doing it, employees who were present and seen conveyed specific things to their managers. And those unconscious perceptions had to impact a manager’s decisions about promotions, who to consider for leadership opportunities and more.

As a remote employee, what can you do to combat this?

Try to establish objective, output related performance evaluations vs. trait-based measurements with your boss.  Elsbach and Cable talk about this a bit more in their article, but, the bottom line is, you should work to establish performance related goals that are based on your actual performance (number of tasks performed, posts per week, revenue generated per quarter, customer satisfaction scores, etc.) vs. their gut feelings on your level of commitment and dependability as an employee.

Guard your professional integrity.

If you want to be seen as dependable and reliable, make sure you deliver projects on time. If you are part of a team that accomplished something, make sure everyone who contributed is recognized. If you run into a big problem that you would normally escalate to your boss in an “in the office” setting, then, don’t try to be a maverick and solve things without collaborating with your higher ups. If you make a mistake, fess up and work through it. If you are committed to be on the clock at a certain time, BE ON THE CLOCK. If you plan to be out, let someone know. These are basic “professionalism 101” kind of things… but I think they matter EVEN more when telecommuting (especially if others may be forming a negative or neutral perspective of you because you are that unseen co-worker).

Be accessible.

It is very difficult to position yourself as a reliable, dedicated employee if you are off the grid whenever your boss tries to contact you. Try to be as responsive as possible to emails, phone calls, etc. Or, offer to set up an instant message service with your boss so that she/he can instant access to you in the event they have a quick question or comment.

Set up regular meetings with your boss.

Use that time to provide updates on your work, discuss customer challenges, share ideas for improvements, showcase achievements, etc. Instead of hoping your boss knows what you contribute (and remembers that when deciding about raises or promotions), be sure that you remind him/her of your value to the organization.

Get in some real face time with your boss.

Passive or otherwise, we are relational people and can always benefit from connecting one-on-one with our managers and colleagues. Schedule a lunch or breakfast meeting in person. Or, plan a virtual meeting with a webcam via Skype or Apple FaceTime.

Ultimately, we can consciously do something to change those unconscious assumptions that people make about us, our work ethic and level of commitment.

What things would you add to the list? What experiences have you had that reinforce Elsbach’s and Cable’s study?

Christy Schutz, is a communications professional and freelance writer focused on topics like employer/personal branding, career management, personal development, women in the workplace, and female entrepreneurs. She enjoys putting 16+ years of experience in the advertising, recruitment marketing, employee/internal communications and special events industries to good use by helping others to discover, develop and market their own distinct calling or mission. This Tampa Bay, FL-based Mom also keeps herself busy by raising 4 kids, caring for her husband & doting on her dogs Petey and Daisy!

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4 Responses to “Work at Home Perceptions: The Faces of Telecommuting”

  1. 1
    Nicola Pitt says:

    I’m fortunate enough to work for a company where EVERYONE telecommutes, from all around the world. So luckily I don’t need to compete with those who are in the office, because there is NO office! However we also facilitate others who want to start telecommuting – set up their connections and convince their bosses of the benefits. So we’ll be sure to recommend some of your tips to our clients.

  2. 2
    Christy says:

    Thanks, Nicola.

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