Has your office become a lonely place?

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from MIT Sloan Management Review.

When many employees work offsite, a corporate office can become a lonelier and less productive place.

Pity the 21st-century office worker. With increasing amounts of work getting done outside the traditional workplace — for example, through employees working at home — those left in the office might face a lonelier and even less productive office environment. In fact, working remotely might be contagious. If many people on a team aren't in the office much, coming into the office has less benefit for the remaining employees.


That's the implication of a fascinating study described in the paper "Contagious Offsite Work and the Lonely Office?: The Unintended Consequences of Distributed Work," published by the journal Academy of Management Discoveries. The paper's authors, Kevin W. Rockmann, an associate professor at the School of Business at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Michael G. Pratt, the O'Connor Family Professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, studied a Fortune 100 company that has about 100,000 employees and generally allows employees substantial flexibility about where they choose to work.

Rockmann and Pratt write that they originally set out to study how employees experienced remote work. Their initial research findings, however, led them to focus more on what they describe as "the deteriorating experience of the onsite office" when offsite work is widespread.

Rockmann and Pratt first interviewed 29 employees of the Fortune 100 company. Among other things, those interviews suggested that, when given a choice of where to work, two factors induce employees to choose to come to the office: a desire for social interaction and the productivity advantages of being able to interact with colleagues face-to-face.

But in an organization where many people work offsite, these advantages diminish. Some employees reported to the researchers that they could come in to the office, yet find no one else on their team there. As a result, the researchers found, some employees opted to work at home simply because so many of their colleagues were offsite that they saw little point in coming in.


Rockmann and Pratt then conducted two surveys that were completed by 242 and 386 employees, respectively, of the same company. In those surveys, employees were given the choice of six or seven possible reasons that they choose to work offsite. In support of the authors' conclusion that remote work might be contagious, the reason most strongly related to an employee's choice to work offsite was, "Few people (if any) from my team work in the office much, so I do not benefit from coming in."

What does all this mean? The authors conclude that their research suggests that "once a certain number of individuals are working offsite, everyone is isolated." What's more, they write, "At some point between an organization initializing the use of distributed teams, telework flexibility, and so forth, there is a tipping point: a moment in time when the nature of the organizational facility changes from having distributed individuals and groups to having a distributed workforce. What defines this tipping point is the lack of enough physically present co-workers to motivate individuals to come to the office."

The authors acknowledge that there are limitations to their research (for example, it involved only one organization), but it raises interesting questions for further study. What's more, it also raises questions for business executives. Among them: How much remote work is too much for the organization? What are effective ways to compensate for the isolation that remote work can cause among all employees — both those in the office and those offsite? How can managers create a sense of community among such distributed teams?


As Rockmann and Pratt's research suggests, the dynamics of remote work — and best practices for managing it — continue to evolve rapidly.

This article is adapted from "Has your office become a lonely place?" by Martha E. Mangelsdorf, editorial director of MIT Sloan Management Review. Copyright 2015 MIT Sloan Management Review. All rights reserved.