Developing a model of leadership in the teleworking environment: a qualitative study.

Author:Taylor, David S.


The study of leadership, leader's roles, and subordinate roles has evolved over time from focusing on traits and then behaviors and further into contingency and neocharismatic paradigms. This evolution was driven by both the advancement of knowledge and by changes in environmental factors such as personal values, laws, politics, economics, and technology. In the last fifteen years leadership paradigms have been especially influenced by technology advances in telecommunications and personal computing. These two technologies enable alternative work arrangement options such as teleworking. The role of the leader is seriously impacted by removing the physical contact between leader and the lead. This paper developes a model of leadership in this environment based on reviewing the existing research then tests that model with a case study of teleworkers and managers from four organizations.


Leadership is one of the world's oldest preoccupations (Bass, 1990). The study of history has been the study of leaders--what they did and why they did it. Historians, philosophers and, more recently, social scientists have developed and explored paradigms of leadership that have evolved through time as organizational environments have changed. Yet the overall importance of leadership has remained unchanged. Napoleon has been widely quoted as saying he would rather have an army of rabbits led by a lion that an army of lions led by a rabbit.

In the last fifteen years, though, there has been a trend towards leaderless organizations. Group decision making, empowered teams, computer aided instruction, distance learning, virtual office, teleworking, etc. have all emerged to wage war against the heretofore accepted leadership roles. The drive towards these changes is influenced by the globalization of businesses, competition, employee unrest, and the need to operate efficiently. The enablers are primarily technological. Since 1980 inexpensive personal computing has become a reality. Telecommunications capabilities have allowed for high speed transmission of data to and from virtually every home, office, or other work location. Client/server computer hardware architecture along with the software to drive it allows access to all company information from anywhere around the world. In this new environment, students are studying and employees are working out of the sight of their teachers or managers. This can be uncomfortable to managers and teachers who have been managing attendance and now must manage outputs. Subordinates must deal with new methods of self-discipline and communication. Other family members also play a role in the success of the alternative work arrangement environment.

This paper will focus on teleworking (or telecommuting as some prefer) as it relates to the leadership role. The following section will discuss the nature and extent of teleworking in the US along with some of the research conducted in the field. Then a model will be developed reflecting the constructs uncovered in the literature review. These constructs are then related to current leadership theories. The next section will test the model through a case study involving four companies and 15 teleworkers and teleworker managers. The last section will present some conclusions and propose areas for further research.


Although the International Telework Association and Council (1998) can trace the history of teleworking to the National Science Foundation in 1973, it has only been since the decade of the 90's that teleworking has gain significance as an alternative work arrangement. Teleworking is more than just working out of the home. It also includes working out of satellite offices, telework centers, on-the-road or some other alternate worksite. Telework is any work arrangement in which employees work at any time or place that allows them to accomplish their work in an effective and efficient manner.

According to a survey sponsored by AT & T as of October 2001 there were something under 30 million people in the US teleworking (Venkatesh & Johnson, 2002). This is a significant increase over estimates of 3 million in 1997. These figures do not include the 43.2 million (Holub, 1999) self-employed people who work out of their homes. The drivers of the telework movement are:

--The transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age

--Sociological trends to better balance work and family life

--Organizational pressures to reduce costs and to improve the ability to recruit and retain workers

--Political pressures for environmental concerns

Realizing benefits from a teleworking program is not as easy as might seem. Some see telework as having the potential to actually blur the boundary between work and family life (Hill & Weiner, 1994). The virtual office can become a "cyberspace sweatshop" (Hill, Hawkins, & Miller, 1996). Pitt-Catsouphes & Marchetta (1991) found that telework can lead to increased levels of conflict in the family and negative spillover. Many researchers claim that combining dependent care with telework is ineffective and should be avoided (Christensen, 1992; Riley, 1994). According to the Gartner Group one-half of all remote-access pilot programs will fail because of insufficient support infrastructure, data security concerns, productivity declines, decreases in employee morale, legal and insurance problems, and teleworkers' fear of management reprisals. Even in light of these negatives, evidence still abounds that telework should be considered a viable concept. Gartner predicted that 137 million workers worldwide would be involved in some form of remote work by 2003 (Manoochehri & Pinkerton, 2003). Computerworld in their June 28, 1999 issue of 100 Best Places to Work in Information Technology determined that 89 percent of these companies offered some form of a teleworking program.

According to Chaudron (1995) a successful teleworking program requires the "right reasons", the "right job", and the "right employee". The right reasons means that management should not just view it as an accommodation or benefit to the employee but should also expect increased productivity. The right job, he says, is one that involves individual versus team contributions. Although team projects can be accomplished with a mixture of at-home and in-office work. The right employee is one whose personal traits will be suitable for teleworking. To these three R's must be added the "right manager" and the "right environment". The personal traits of the manager are just as important as are the employee's traits. The manager's anxieties and inability to lead can undermine the potential benefits of a telework program. Environmental concerns include the at-home workplace distractions and available resources, the in-office accommodations, and the formal and informal communication channels. This paper will focus on the right employee, the right manager, and the right communications, as these are the major components of a leadership study.


Ninety-four percent of homeworkers sampled said they wished to continue homeworking, but less than ten percent said they would want to continue for the rest of their working lives (Baruch & Nicholson, 1997). These statistics reflect the inner conflict facing the remote worker. Teleworkers can suffer from feelings of isolation, anxiety over career issues, negative spillover between work and family life, guilt, communication gaps, and reduced productivity.

According to participants at an ACM forum (1995), working electronically kills the most human qualities of an employee--the ability to interact both socially and professionally. These statements reflect the isolation that can occur in a teleworking environment. Teleworkers may feel left out of the loop of everything from office gossip to changes in Company policies, procedures, or activities. However, teleworkers and managers who are part of a program to interact informally, develop interpersonal organizational networks and create synergistic relationships have shown reduced feelings of isolation (Kurland & Cooper, 2002).

In a survey conducted by Huws (1984), 60 percent of respondents felt that isolation was the primary disadvantage of teleworking. Being a physically isolated teleworker is likely to reduce the amount of feedback received from supervisors, coworkers, and clients. Hamilton (1987) reported that most teleworkers miss the stimulation of exchanging ideas with colleagues. Additionally, because communication is primarily nonvisual, any feedback will be lower quality because of the reduced nonverbal cues (Norman et. al., 1995).

Conflicting studies have looked at the impact of "neighborhood work centers" as a mitigating factor for feelings of isolation. These work centers allow telecommuters to share resources in an office setting but one that is located near to their homes. These centers can cater to workers of a single employer (satellite or branch office) or of multiple employers. DiMartino and Wirth (1990) determined in their study that the neighborhood center did help to combat isolation and was the location of choice for the homeworker. On the contrary, Crossan and Burton (1993) in their case study found that although all the respondents saw isolation as a negative, only one wanted to leave the home as the primary work environment.

The Crossan and Burton (1993) study also gave support to the suggestion that the majority of teleworkers are married women with childcare responsibilities, who are not interested in promotion. More recent statistics are showing that this is no longer the case (International Telework Association and Council, 1998). Professional workers are becoming a more dominant part of the telework workforce. These people are interested in their career growth and have concerns about being out-of-sight/out-of-mind with their supervisors.

Another area of major concern to the...

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