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Jamie Lawrence


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Academic insight: what are the main challenges of teleworking?


This article was written by Dr Oliver Mallett, a Lecturer in Management at Durham University Business School, and Dr Robert Wapshott, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the University of Sheffield.

While offering many benefits, working from home is not without potential problems for employers or employees and their cohabitants.

High-speed internet and related technology have made regular working from home a possibility for many employees who might otherwise be stressed by the frustrations of daily commutes and canteen queues. Teleworking enables people to work remotely from the traditional workplace. However, as the technological barriers to teleworking fall away, other challenges associated with re-locating work in the home are brought into sharper relief.

In our research, at the Universities of Durham and Sheffield, we have drawn on a broad range of studies identifying the challenges associated with re-locating paid work in the home environment. At the heart of the matter is an ambiguity around where ‘work’ ends and ‘home’ begins, and vice-versa. Such ambiguity throws up challenges for employers, employees and those who live with them.

Challenges for employers
Working from home requires certain office equipment being set-up in the home. Items such as computers, mobile phones and printers have many uses beyond the paid work for which they were provided and any organisation planning to pursue greater homeworking needs to consider how comfortable it is with work equipment being diverted to personal uses. Policies governing use can, of course, be laid down, but whether they can be enforced remains open for discussion.

Secondly, how comfortable are you allowing employees to manage their own working day and monitor their own hours. The working day or a focussed state of mind can be disrupted not only by family life happening in the next room but also by the temptations of domestic chores or entertainment systems. Furthermore, it is not only what employees actually do that must be considered but what they are perceived to do by their colleagues who may become hostile to what is judged an easy option or an excuse to avoid ‘real working’. Addressing such challenges may require more than frequent visits by a worker’s line manager but many managers are uncomfortable visiting employees’ homes. At the same time, employees too might resent a sense of ‘surveillance’ or intrusion.

Challenges for employees
‘Work’ and ‘home’ are not simply physical containers that are filled with relevant objects but are spaces that people attach meanings to. For example, a worker who performs their occupation in the same space that they use to relax might miss out on important opportunities to ‘switch-off’ because everything they associate with work sits waiting in the adjoining room. Our efforts to relax in the same space where we’ve been working all day, may be frustrated as there are reminders of work and of its associated stresses all around us. Even when a work laptop is switched off we often need a change of space to help us to fully relax.

Furthermore, studies of white-collar homeworkers have looked at how, despite the technologies available, there remains a need for social contact to overcome issues of isolation, loneliness and poor motivation. The social interaction often provided by office-life can be important to people as well as providing opportunities for creativity or ad hoc collaboration.

Challenges for cohabitants
Yet it is not only the homeworker themselves who may find work intruding on their domestic relaxation and enjoyment. Recent research has looked at how bringing ‘work’ into the home can have implications for family members and other co-residents. To create a good working environment homeworkers may create rules about how people behave in the home to minimise disruption, for example limiting access to the ‘office’ or maintaining quiet periods during the day. Establishing these rules can have implications for how other people use what remains their home.

Many of us associate ‘home’ with being able to please ourselves and relax, but rules introduced to facilitate homeworking can disrupt this sense of ‘home’ and create tensions over whose interests should be prioritised. Working from home can therefore disrupt the lives of family members and other co-residents – it has implications beyond the homeworker themselves.

Many organisations might agree to the idea of homeworking attracted by the flexibility it offers in theory, but such attractions are accompanied by risks. Over-enthusiastic monitoring of staff working hours or work patterns may disrupt employee commitment if they feel the company is reneging on a promise of greater flexibility. Individual homeworkers may also find the realities of homeworking to be less flexible and more challenging than they had imagined. Finally, when weighed-up against the tensions around managing a home-work life, escaping to the daily commute and canteen queues may prove strangely alluring.

This blog is derived from an article published in the journal Organization, which contains a full list of the research we draw on with examples and further detailed discussion. Additionally, please contact the authors for further information.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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