Contradictions surrounding telework: Advantages and challenges for the employee and organization.

ImageWorkplace flexibility has received considerable attention in recent years, nurturing a discussion about the potential benefits and drawbacks from flexible work. Many are the promises, but so are also the challenges. Dr. Sebastian Boell (at University of Sydney Business School) and his colleagues lay out on the table advantages, challenges and contradictions of the transformative nature of telework based on past research. Reading the paper, it becomes evident that the effects flexible work has on organizations are not black on white. This blog post gives an overview of some of the outcomes that has been linked to flexible work.

Flexible work is proposed to have a number of advantages, both from an individual’s as well as from an organizational perspective. On the list of individual advantages are increased work-life balance, increased autonomy and job satisfaction, increased productivity as well as financial advantages. This has organizational level advantages as well, such as increased work morale, productivity gains, improved agility, financial advantages as well as improved ability to recruit and retain employers. I do get the feeling that this sounds promising, doesn’t it?

On the other side of the coin, challenges may arise from the loosening constraints of where and when employees can engage in work. Some potential challenges the employee may face are work-life blurring, decreased possibility for social and informal interaction with colleagues, lower career and workplace involvement, and reduced trust. This also poses challenges to the organization and the traditional perceptions of management and leadership styles. Interaction may also be challenged when some members of a team are not physically present. Additional expertise and an adequate ICT infrastructure along with security policies are needed, to mention some.

From these outcomes, I will compare the advantage of work-life balance with the challenge of work-life blurring as an example of the complexity. Flexible workers may feel that they are better able to coordinate and manage their work commitments in accordance with personal needs or family requirement, hence enjoying a better work-life balance. On the same time some may find a hard time of keeping work and leisure time and activities separated, when boundaries between work and leisure time and space gets blurred. It is all about managing the boundaries right? How teleworkers manage these boundaries is an interesting question that follows. This is indeed a more complex function than simply stating that flexible work practices leads to increased work-life balance as many other factors play a role.

Personality aspects and job characteristics are only a few aspects that need to be put into the equation. Individuals need to be put in relations to larger entities and vise versa. Potential outcomes of telework cannot be understood by simply stacking up potential positive outcomes and potential negative ones against each other. It would be necessary to develop a deeper understanding of how the advantages and challenges are interrelated, contradicting and influencing each other for different stakeholders, to better aid in the adaption of flexible work practices in organizations. Based on our research, we do believe that the advantages overrun the challenges, but again, the equation is more complex than this.

Read the whole article from Boell and colleagues (2013) here.


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