As governments around the world work to control the spread of COVID-19, companies have activated remote work policies to balance employee health with business as usual.
And those policies do more than just promote physical well-being for employees. Remote work allows an employee to build their schedule around their personal responsibilities, encouraging mental health and a better work-life balance. MIT Sloan professor saw this firsthand while studying a large, tech-focused company for her new book “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.”
Over the course of about five years, Kelly and her co-author, University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen, studied how an organizational change initiative called STAR [Support. Transform. Achieve. Results.] benefited employees and the company — referred to as TOMO. In the book, excerpted below, Kelly and Moen relate personal stories from employees about how working remotely improved their personal lives and productivity. The selection has been edited for brevity.
Many people told us that working at home increased their focus and allowed them to move through their work more quickly.
For example, Tori [a development manager who supervises many offshore employees] notes that “at first, it felt odd” to change her work routines. But she finds it worthwhile.
“I’ll just say when I work at home and not the office, I feel like I get a ton more done because there’s less distraction. My phone is not ringing,” Tori said.
Even though Tori keeps the chat application [IM] turned on so her staff can reach her easily, she finds working at home less disruptive than “yakking” with coworkers in the office.
“If I’m at home, there’s nobody to talk to and I get a lot done. So for me personally, it’s more productive to work from home,” Tori said.
Working at home and offsite was common at TOMO even before STAR, but those in the work redesign initiative increased their remote work significantly compared to their peers.
At our baseline survey, almost everyone did some work at home and employees worked remotely for, on average, about 23% of their total weekly hours.
Once STAR had launched, STAR employees and managers began working 41% of their weekly hours at home, on average, and continued to increase to 51% remote hours about a year later [by the time of our fourth survey].
Clearly, these IT professionals and managers were interested in the possibility of working at home more. But it took a work redesign initiative that welcomed that as a reasonable and perhaps wise strategy — rather than framing flexibility as accommodation — before those changes took off.
Importantly, the changes are evident not just for parents but for employees who do not have children at home as well. Under STAR, work at home becomes a normal option, but not one that is forced on anyone.
Other research also demonstrates that a work redesign approach reassures employees and managers that remote work is legitimate and appropriate, encouraging broader take-up than we see with other flexibility policies.
Leaving work at work
Of course, some employees and managers decide to work in the office almost every day, and this is perfectly acceptable in STAR and similar work redesign efforts. Jayden, an IT analyst who now works about 90 percent of his time at home [and is partnered, with no children], explains:
“Of my peers, it seems like the only ones who come to the office are the ones who want to. I even have a developer peer who comes to the office every day,” Jayden said.
Part of it is he likes to go out to lunch with his co-worker friends. But he [also] doesn’t like merging the home world and the work world. It’s very important for him to leave work at work.
Here Jayden refers to what scholars call a preference for segmentation, as opposed to integration, of work and non-work activities and spaces. The coworker he mentions is a clear segmenter, while Jayden is a hardcore integrator who loves his home office and the possibility of fitting in a few chores during the day or meeting his brother for a quick lunch nearby. He continues:
“That’s the whole thing about STAR though, is you have the choice, the flexibility,” Jayden said.
Many interview respondents described how both remote work and flexible schedules allowed them to seamlessly fit in personal commitments such as taking kids to school, taking an afternoon break [after logging in quite early in the morning] to run errands or mow the lawn or stop by an elderly parent’s house, or taking a few hours to go to medical appointments with loved ones or to supervise children’s or grandchildren’s activities just before dinner.
That work still had to be done, of course, but many employees and frontline managers appreciated that they could return to their work later in the evening or shift some work to weekends, without asking for permission or reporting their plans to anyone.
Other employees did not use STAR to flow between work and personal tasks but instead used the work redesign to set boundaries, so that work was more contained and personal time was protected.
This was a minority of those we interviewed, but some individuals made it clear that they would not be checking email or chat in the evenings. They wanted to be called for a true emergency [like a systems outage], but reminded their teams they would not be responding immediately otherwise.
STAR prompted team discussions about how people preferred to be reached and clarified expected response times for common issues — relieving anxiety that availability was always expected and quick responses would be rewarded.
Even when professionals and managers chose to work in the office almost exclusively, many found STAR useful. For example, Elise, who is a married software development engineer in her early sixties, describes how she shifts her work hours but not her workspace.
“I just prefer [working in the office] because I feel like I get more done here rather than at home or rather than at Starbucks or rather than anywhere,” Elise said. “But the flexibility is something I just like. I come in late, I come in early, I come in on Saturday. I do what I want because I know what I have to do.”
Excerpted from OVERLOAD: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do about It by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen. Copyright © 2020 by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.