Workplace flexibility is a hot topic for the modern business world.
There is a lot of chatter in the business and academic worlds on the changing nature of work, particularly the increase in ‘flexible working’ – being able and ‘allowed’ to get work done away from the office and strict 9-5 timeframes. Indeed, the Betterworking team helps many of its customers to change working practices and use the latest technology to enable employees to get work done more nimbly and effectively from anywhere at any time.
But alongside this backdrop, concerns are also being vocalised about the ability of the employee to get work done in this way, as well as the well-being of the employee. Only this week was my eye caught by Joanna Biggs’ sub-headline – ‘The boundary between job and home has been all but breached. And it’s not good for any of us’.
And on this very topic of ‘boundary management’ as it relates to working practices, the Betterworking team caught up with Dr Alexandra Beauregard of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) last week for some sushi and serious talk on her latest research in this area.
A study on how ‘teleworkers’ create and maintain boundaries between work and home
Dr Beauregard is Assistant Professor of Employment Relations and Organisational Behaviour at LSE and specialises in the interface between paid work and home life, addressing in particular the causes and consequences of conflict between these two domains.
Dr Beauregard’s latest research, conducted with Dr. Kelly Basile (a research associate at Harvard Business School), explores whether and how experiences of working away from the office or ‘telework’ differ depending on the extent to which employees work away from the office. They explore the strategies used to create and maintain boundaries between work and home (‘segmentation’ and ‘integration’) and how these strategies are influenced by the extent of telework as well as the employee’s preference for segmentation or integration.
Separating Life and Work: ‘Segmentation’ vs. ‘Integration’
Irrespective of the amount of ‘tele-working’, all employees in the study were engaging in ‘boundary management’ – tactics employed to recreate the separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’ activities and responsibilities when the physical office space is removed from the equation.
Dr Beauregard explained that there are two broad styles of tactics – ‘integration’ and ‘segmentation’. People that ‘segment’ prefer clear physical, temporal or communicative boundaries between their work and personal life. ‘Integrators’ are those people who are happy to ‘flit back and forth’ between work and their personal life. Negative outcomes can arise if an organisation enables one of these styles more than the other and the employee fits into the alternative category. For example, an ‘integrator’ might struggle in an organisation where mobile phones with access to email and corporate information are not issued to staff or there’s no BYOD policy because this is an essential tool that enables the integrator to move frequently and easily between work and their personal life.
Similarly to Joanna Biggs’ description of the ‘social media entrepreneur’ who had to be ‘instantly’ and ‘always’ available for her employer, Dr Beauregard warns of the dangers associated with ‘integration’ as this can turn the employee into a ‘never stop working worker’.
Managing flexible working is not a process that should be taken lightly
One of the most striking results of this research for me was that employees that spend most of their time working away from the office perceived as little autonomy over their work and flexibility granted by their employer as those that spent the least amount of time working away from the office. Interestingly, the 100% telework group were the least ‘engaged’ in the organisation and often resented occasions when they were forced to come into the office. Reasons cited for this included the fact that not all employees had chosen this working solution due to office closures, and the nature of their work was much more autonomous than collaborative.
An unforeseen consequence of having employees working from home on a full-time basis was that very little knowledge transfer was happening with these staff members; their skills and experience were not being passed along to more junior colleagues. This raises questions for the organisational culture that sits alongside flexible working practices and demonstrates how more flexibility does not necessarily mean happier workers.
The elephant in the room: Today’s notion of the ‘hard worker’
We discussed with Dr Beauregard additional factors and implications of flexible working and all acknowledged that the elephant in the room for this topic is the tension between prevailing cultures and norms around ‘working hard’ and the realities of people’s lives and what they increasingly want. Dr Beauregard highlighted that these norms are also internalised by employees, it is not just the position of the organisation – “it’s difficult to get away from the culture that to be a star employee you need to prioritise your job over your personal life and you should be working more than the contracted hours to be successful. It can even go as far as being ‘you have to work a lot to be a good person'”.
This has implications for the future of work. In reality, to make the balance with personal life, particularly caring for family, workers will need to work reduced hours. “It then gets very difficult when highly educated people are looking for reduced hours work, which typically will not be available for this type of worker. This results in the under employment of talented people.”
What the future of work looks like
Dr Beauregard is particularly interested at present in the delineation between part and full time work. “In the future we’re going to have to get away from this pure separation and think in terms of a spectrum and focus on outputs…If someone is working well, it shouldn’t matter when or where they’re working”. Our culture is fixated on hours but no one is measuring the impact of these hours worked. “If two people are working the same job, one for 10 hours and the other for 7 hours, but both are having the same impact, then why does the 10 hour person get rewarded more? Surely she or he is inefficient?”
I proposed that Silicon Valley startups are perhaps our best examples of seeing this mindset and culture in action and asked whether she thought larger more traditional corporations could follow suit. Dr Beauregard thinks there’s hope for these types of organisations but it will be challenging. Ultimately these organisations need to build in flexibility so people can stay and build their careers there, but have the ability to change their contracted hours every year.
Basile, K. A., & Beauregard, T. A. (2015, April). Mind the gap: Negotiating boundaries between work and home. Paper presented at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference, Philadelphia, PA.
Author: Nina Pattinson