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Making Telework Work: The upsides, downsides and the way forward (Part 1)

Datum:12 mei 2021
Auteur:Jessica de Bloom and Anita Keller
Making Telework Work: The upsides, downsides and the way forward (Part 1)
Making Telework Work: The upsides, downsides and the way forward (Part 1)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, practically overnight, a large share of the working population transitioned to working from home: involuntarily, unprepared and often full-time. While writing this blog, around 50% of the Dutch workforce works from home. This sparked a lot of new research and the surprising successes and challenges of working from home make companies rethink their way of working [1].

What do we know about the benefits and downsizes of this way of working (we use the generic term ‘telework’)? On what should companies base their decisions when organizing their workplace in the future?

Already long before the pandemic hit, there was a growing body of research demonstrating both benefits and downsides of telework. Telework, e-work, telecommuting, remote work, virtual office, distance work, hybrid work – various words that refer to the same phenomenon: “Organizing and performing work, using information technology, in the context of an employment contract/ relationship, where work, which could also be performed at the employers’ premises, is carried out away from those premises on a regular basis.”[2].

We will briefly review this existing research below. We believe that this can help us to design future workplaces in the “new normal”.  This blog on telework consists of three parts:

  1. For a review of the positive sides of telework, continue reading the next section.
  2. For a more balanced view of telework, continue reading the part on the downsides of telework - see below
  3. If you are short in time and want to focus on the way forward, click on this to jump straight to this follow-on blog. 

The upsides of telework

In the Dutch working context, the term “the new way of working”[3] is often used and several Dutch firms were quick to experiment in the 90`s with new types of working flexibly such as part-time telework, open office spaces and “hot desks” (i.e., desks used by different people at different times). Reasons for companies to introduce part-time telework are often financial. Workspace is scarce and expensive in a small and densely populated country like the Netherlands. In addition, part-time telework can be marketed as facilitating work-life balance and attract new, talented employees.

Governments tend to be supportive of telework, because it can ease peak traffic problems and lower CO2 emissions. Concentration of people in cities may decrease when people telework and people living in rural areas can more easily participate in the labor market. This may eventually decrease housing shortages in densely populated urban areas.

For employees, the time saved for commuting can be invested in work, sleeping longer or spending more time with family and friends. People with disabilities and limited commuting opportunities can more easily participate in the labor market, too. People who take care of close others, such as children or elderly parents, can more easily combine work and private life responsibilities.

A core benefit that teleworkers experience is the enhanced level of autonomy. At the University of Groningen, a large survey on telework conducted by the AMD, found that 80% of the employees reported also beneficial effects of telework[4]. Teleworkers often report high levels of energy, work motivation, job satisfaction and work-life balance[5, 6]. Workers often perceive the opportunity to work from home as a sign that the organization trusts them and become more loyal and committed to the organization[7].

Overall, teleworkers also perform well, due to fewer interruptions and higher levels of concentration at home. Researchers also found 30% increases in productivity and claimed that 25 hours of telework would be equivalent to 40 hours in an office [8]. A more recent study comparing the same 180 workers´ performance while working in the office or at home found that workers reported higher levels of (self-rated) performance and performed better on a creative problem-solving task when teleworking [9]. In a meta-analysis, use of telework was associated with enhanced supervisor-rated and objectively measured job performance[10]. In a recent data collection by researchers of the University of Groningen[11], 55% of employees reported to be equally or even more productive than before the pandemic.

The downsides of telework

Enhanced productivity and autonomy often reported during telework may come at a price. High levels of autonomy can also lead to a “freedom trap”[12]or an “autonomy paradox”[13]. A striking example is described in Dave Cook´s paper on the working practices of “digital nomads”. Digital nomads are young, work-oriented people who reject traditional work structures and travel to different places while performing their location-independent work. Their romanticized lifestyle actually requires a lot of creativity, effort and self-discipline to establish a healthy balance between work and private life under teleworking conditions. When boundaries between work and leisure merge, and people can work anywhere and anytime, they tend to use strategies such as goal setting, setting strict guidelines, establishing routines and pre-set working hours. These strategies require a lot of self-regulation efforts. A home environment can also be very distracting, particularly when shared with other people. For instance, parents may well remember the time when the schools and daycare centers were closed and they had to juggle work and childcare. Moreover, it is much more challenging to achieve mental disengagement from work when the office is always in sight or when the office turns into the living room after work is done. This is also a major challenge mentioned by employees of the University of Groningen. Teleworkers may feel that they are “always on” and never get a break from work.

Furthermore, telework is often not optimally utilized. Even though people would in principle have the freedom to adjust their day to their own biorhythm, alternate start- and ending times and breaks to their needs, this rarely happens. Similar observations have been made in Finland, the country with the highest level of flexible working times in the world. Looking at Finnish time use data spanning three decades (i.e., from 1979–2010), the authors concluded that “work practices have remained surprisingly conventional”[14]. People need to coordinate their work with co-workers and family obligations. Therefore, they tend to stick to routines and mostly keep working relatively normal 9-5 office hours - a trend that we can also see during the pandemic.

Another group of negative effects that often occur during telework, can be labeled ‘professional isolation’. Teleworkers often find it harder to ask for support from colleagues. In the office, it is easy to pop into the office of a colleague or supervisor to quickly ask some help with an acute work-related problem or vent over an annoyance over lunch. Physical distance can be an obstacle to reach out for help and build social capital. This is of particular relevance when starting a new job but also people who are already more advanced in their career appreciate opportunities to network and ask for informal help. Feelings of isolation and limited career prospects occur more easily in organizations in which telework is forced on certain employees while others can decide to attend important meetings in person 4,5,6. Social isolation at work also reduces work meaningfulness. Isolated employees no longer understand what others in the organization are doing and how their work contributes to their team´s and organization´s goals, and the greater good. At the University of Groningen, half of the employees feel lonely more often than before the pandemic. A pandemic drastically limits people´s ability to satisfy their “need to belong”, a fundamental human need which helps people to flourish and remain healthy mentally and physically [15].

Finally, telework also poses challenges to supervisors. Particularly inexperienced supervisors, supervisors with certain personality traits, and supervisors in generally low trusting organizations may find it difficult to have the confidence that their employees will do their work out of sight. Mistrust and insecurity can easily turn into controlling behaviors (e.g., calling or emailing at random times to check response times; proctoring software) which can damage the employee-supervisor relationship and greatly limit the employee´s feeling of autonomy[16]. If people´s effort investment is no longer measured in time, a switch to management by objectives and output is needed. This requires new supervisory skills and knowledge as well as close monitoring by the organization and key stakeholders to ensure that job objectives remain realistic and can be obtained within the available working time.

Telework: The way forward

Telework has important benefits, such as easing societal problems related to densely populated areas, increasing feelings of autonomy and enhanced performance. However, it also has serious downsides such as vanishing boundaries of life domains, extended working hours, professional isolation and leadership challenges.

So, where should we be heading in the future? In our next blog we will give some guidelines of  what companies can and should do when organizing their workplace in the future.

 Part 2 of this blog

Authors: 

dr. J. (Jessica) de Bloom, Rosalind Franklin Fellow, Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen.

dr. A.C. (Anita) Keller, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Groningen.