I was at another conference last week – the Work2015 conference in the beautiful city of Turku – and I have to say it was a really great conference with excellent papers and presentations and some really good conversation. And yes, I may still be dazzled by the fabulous, designer Marimekko bags they handed out as conference bags, but it really was a great conference.
There was one presentation that was particularly intriguing for me as I have set out to change working culture as we know it; and as I ponder the alternative solutions for work I come across in my research, as well as what it is about these solutions that appeal to people and make them say things like “I could never imagine going back to working the way I did”. This particular paper was by a Swiss scholar who had done a quantitative study of the advantages of working from home, examining the correlation between working from home and work effort.
Previous research has argued that there are advantages to working from home, and the list is actually quite long. It includes flexibility, the ability to plan one’s work according to one’s personal rhythm, less distractions, reduced work-related stress, better work-life balance, higher job satisfaction, and more autonomy. However according to this Swiss scholar, there really hasn’t been a lot of empirical evidence, so this is what she set out to do. I’m not going to go into the details of her regression analysis (mostly because I’m a qualitative researcher and it eludes me) but the conclusion she came to was that working from home leads to greater work effort, and not only that, she also found that when you work from home more often, work effort also increases.
Now as a qualitative researcher, I have to point out that things are seldom as simple as we like to portray them, and when analyzing quantitative variables we also need to understand and critically examine what lies behind these variables and the assumptions we are making about them. In this study effort was measured as the hours a person works beyond the hours specified in his or her work contract (i.e. overtime), and we need to be careful when equating overtime with effort or commitment to an organization, which she was also arguing.
For example, those of us who have worked from home a lot know that some colleagues can be quite suspicious of people who don’t come in to the office daily. People gossip and speculate whether or not you’re really working. I’m sure we have all been conscious of things like when we email people so that they can see that we are actually at our computers like we said we would be, as well as a little (or a lot) longer than we are expected to be. Since most organizations still don’t have much of an established offsite working culture, people who work from home may put a lot of energy into managing others’ perceptions of them. In short, what drives a person to put in the extra hours may not simply be related to their commitment to the organization.
And, related to this, there is also research that shows that more hours don’t necessarily make us more productive. On the contrary, energy levels plummet if we do very long days and it has been argued that we may even get more done if we did shorter days and didn’t get so tired. So longer hours is not necessarily something we should automatically strive for.
So one needs to be a bit careful about one’s assumptions, but still this study is an indicator of something that is definitely worth thinking about. We need to question the belief that a working culture that demands working in an office environment during certain designated hours according to a certain script is the best and/or only right way of working.
As someone who truly loves working in my home office and needs to do so as much as possible for my sanity and peace of mind, I got quite excited about a study that examines the advantages of working from home. But most of all I rejoiced at the mere existence of this study because I can use it and show it to the organizations that have policies for working offsite but also admit that they generally don’t allow people to do so because how could they possibly know they were really working. After all, for whatever reason, this study did show that people who work from home tend to work more.
We need to shatter prevalent but dated ideas of what an acceptable way of working is as well as where it is appropriate to work. But we also need to get better at measuring the quality of work achievements and not just the quantity of the hours put it. By focusing on quality and not so much on quantity we don’t have to be so suspicious of and constantly monitor employees and their use of their time. We can allow and perhaps even encourage them to work wherever they feel they want and need to work, and if I’m any indicator, that might just have a huge impact on the quality of their work, their quality of life, and their wellbeing.