While working remotely may sound perfect for many harried workers, it could prove to be less idyllic than many imagine – not just for management, but also for employees.
Too good to be true? The flipside of the freedom of working remotely can be a feeling of social and professional isolation.
In recent years, employers have identified the trend towards flexible work arrangements as a significant driver for workplaces of the future. Flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, co-working spaces, virtual teams, freelancing and online talent platforms are transcending the physical location of the office.
However, Dr Yvette Blount, a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University’s Business School, says the growing trend is not without its limitations for managers and their staff.
'Anywhere working’ sometimes doesn’t
Blount, who has written extensively on ‘anywhere working’, says flexible work arrangements provide a better work-life balance, reduce commute times, and cut costly overheads for employers while also helping to attract and retain employees.
Overwork may harm workers, families and ultimately the economy because teleworkers may use technologies in ways that intrude into family life and leisure time.
However, she says critics believe it leads to social and professional isolation, reduces collaboration and innovation, and can eat into valuable downtime.
She says physical and temporal boundaries are more fluid than for workers who head into an office.
“Overwork may harm workers, families and ultimately the economy because teleworkers may use technologies in ways that intrude into family life and leisure time,” Blount says.
Consequently, she says for those people working from a home office, it has been found to increase exhaustion and stress when work and family conflicts are difficult to balance.
Blount says the design of any role should include consideration of the job tasks, the level of autonomy, required skills, workload, career progression and performance management, the cultural context and an individual’s characteristics.
‘Anywhere working’ has the potential to accommodate the ageing workforce, workers with disabilities and other workers who may not be able to attend an office regularly. As the population ages and workers work for longer, it is likely that employers will need to accommodate more flexible work options.
The flexibility of using remote and temporary workers introduces management complexity in two ways. The first is how knowledge can be transferred from temporary workers to the organisation. The second is how to develop a corporate culture that keeps workers engaged and productive.
Double-edged: technology advancements have opened the door to freedom and flexibility but isolation and loss of personal time is also a consequence, says Dr Blount.
“The management challenge is to be able to exploit cultural differences to gain competitive advantage while managing conflicts and problems,” Blount says, adding this is particularly acute while managing a diverse range of workers located around the world.
The challenge for management is to understand future trends relating to the location of work that is increasingly being disrupted by technology.
Jobs with tasks that interlink with other team members may not be suitable for anywhere working, or at least not all the time.
While technology has provided the flexibility and freedom to work anywhere by facilitating communication and collaboration with colleagues, managers, and clients, some companies remain unconvinced and have either banned or significantly limited the ability of their employees to work from home.
In the US, Yahoo and HP took such measures in 2013, saying working away from the office is not conducive to teamwork, collaboration and employee engagement.
“Jobs with tasks that require collaboration with other team members may not be suitable for anywhere working – such as frontline staff, workers in health care, manufacturing, retail and teaching – or at least not all the time,” Blount says.
On the flipside, she says jobs with a high degree of autonomy including accountants, academics, computer programmers, IT analysts and management consultations have the freedom to make decisions about work that tends to lead to a higher level of job satisfaction. A high level of job autonomy is associated with enhanced worker well-being, including improved vitality, psychological flexibility and a greater sense of achievement.
Expert: Dr Yvette Blount, from the Centre of Workforce Futures, has written extensively on the growing trend of 'anywhere working'.
“There is no doubt that management of ‘anywhere work’ becomes more complex as workers have more flexibility to work in multiple locations,” Blount says.
Dr Yvonne Blount is a Senior Lecturer at the Macquarie Business School and a member of the Centre for Workforce Futures at the university.