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The challenges of telework

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Scientific interpretation

Telework is an attractive practice that is growing in popularity: avoiding traffic jams, managing your own work hours, being more available for family… at first glance, it seems like an ideal solution! However, it is not clear that this solution can be customized, or is even customizable, for everyone. In fact, telework can be synonymous with stress and tensions, and can reduce many people’s well-being. For this reason, despite the advantages of telework for some people, you must be prudent when adopting this approach on a large scale.

Perry and colleagues (2017) wanted to understand the effect of telework on employees’ well-being, based on the proportion of work done remotely. To meet this challenge, they had access to two theories: the demand-control-person model and the motivational theory of self-determination. Based on earlier research results on the subject, the authors identified personality (emotional stability) and autonomy as two variables having an influence on the degree of employee well-being and the tensions experienced in the context of telework.

Expert advisers

Sarah LEBLANC, doctoral candidate in organizational psychology, Université de Sherbrooke

Philippe LONGPRÉ, Ph.D., psy., CRHA, assistant professor, Department of Psychology, Université de Sherbrooke

Authors

Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

Josée CHARBONNEAU, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

THE DEMAND-CONTROL-PERSON MODEL

The demand-control-person model takes into account the balance between demand and resources. “Demand” refers to work-related requirements (for example, long work hours or expected performance). “Control” is related to the employee’s degree of autonomy (for example, flexibility regarding the use of their time and a sense of competence in carrying out their tasks). Finally, the “person” aspect corresponds to the employee’s personal characteristics (for example, emotional stability).

According to this model, demands can have negative effects on the well-being of employees, who use personal resources and control to cushion these effects. A demand can therefore become stimulating, in cases where personal resources and control are mobilized.

 

 

THE MOTIVATIONAL THEORY OF SELF-DETERMINATION

The self-determination model supposes that all people have common innate needs: that is, a sense of competence, autonomy and belonging. The satisfying of these needs translates into employees’ well-being and motivation at work.

 

WHAT DO WE MEAN BY :

Telework

Telework refers to working in a place that is different from the main workplace – that is, in a place that is not a primary office used by the organization, such as the home, cafés or client locations. Based on this definition, a satellite office of the organization would not be considered telework, because it is merely an extension of the primary workplace.

Tensions

This is a state of reduced well-being that happens when a person’s resources [1] (energy, support, time, personal characteristics) are threatened or depleted, which prevents them from effectively managing demands related to work, achieving set objectives or engaging in their personal and professional development. The authors present three types of tensions:

1. Burnout: an overall decrease in psychological and emotional energy needed to accomplish certain work-related tasks;
2. Disengagement: a low degree of engagement and dedication towards work;
3. Dissatisfaction: a negative attitude that develops based on an employee’s judgment of their overall experience of work.

 

Autonomy

Autonomy refers to the degree of flexibility an employee has to plan and organize their work, as well as to determine the means they will use to achieve their objectives. Autonomy involves not only the workplace (where?), but also and especially how to carry out the tasks (how?).

In this text, autonomy and emotional stability are the variables influencing the degree of employee well-being. However, the need for autonomy as defined in the theory of self-determination refers to employees’ perception of their ability to “structure and how and when they do their particular tasks.”[2]

 

 

Emotional stability

Emotional stability is a person’s general tendency to remain calm, relaxed and confident in the face of stressful situations, which allows them to not be bothered by such situations. It is a personality trait that encourages greater autonomy. In this way, employees with higher levels of emotional stability are better equipped to manage both the challenges and the benefits involved in telework.

 

 

 

Complete reference

Perry, S. J., Rubino, C. et Hunter, E. M. (2018). Stress in remote work: two studies testing the Demand-Control-Person model. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1-17.

Method

The researchers did their analysis based on the results of these two studies:

Study 1: Demand-control-person
Study 1 aimed to collect data related to demands and control.

In total, 258 active adults who were working full-time participated in two surveys, which were done at three-month intervals, through the online survey platform MarketTools Zoomerang, which included participants from several countries.

L’échantillon final comprenait :
• 55% women and 45% men;
• Average age: 45 years;
• Average seniority: 9 years;
• Average number of hours worked per week: 43;
• Average salary: $44,882;
• 62% had an associate diploma[3];
• 34% worked remotely to a certain extent during the three-month period.

Study 2: Self-determination
Study 2 aimed to collect data related to innate needs.

In total, 145 full-time professional employees from three organizations in the southern United States (an engineering firm, a technology firm, and a local government agency composed of human resource personnel and managers or immediate supervisors) had to complete an online questionnaire. These organizations offered employees the possibility of working remotely.

The final sample included:
• 41% women;
• 39% were members of a minority;
• Average age: 44.3 years;
• Average seniority: 7.4 years;
• Average number of hours worked per week: 41.9;
• Average salary: $66,918;
• 41% had an associate diploma or higher.

 

WHAT DO THE STUDY’S RESULTS SHOW?

The greater the employee’s autonomy and emotional stability, the less likely they are to experience tensions related to telework. Here are four possible scenarios:

High levels of autonomy and emotional stability.

  • Employees who find themselves in this situation would be more able to meet their needs for competence, autonomy and belonging, which would increase their ability to manage work demands and the related stress.
  • For these employees, telework generally does not have a negative effect on their well-being.
  • For these employees, the more hours of telework there are, the less tension there is.

A high level of autonomy, but a low level of emotional stability.

  • Employees who find themselves in this situation would have fewer personal resources to meet their needs in terms of a sense of competence, autonomy and belonging. The imbalance between the high flexibility they have and insufficient personal resources can result in tensions.
  • In this case, telework can lead to an increase in tensions and reduced well-being.
  • For these employees, an increasing number of telework hours could increase tensions.

A low level of autonomy, but a high level of emotional stability.

  • Despite a high level of emotional stability, when the degree of flexibility in the work is low or absent, the result is a decreased sense of autonomy and competence, which can lead to reduced well-being at work.
  • For these employees, an increased number of telework hours could increase tensions.

Low levels of autonomy and emotional stability.

  • Employees who find themselves in this situation would be less able to develop a personal sense of competence, autonomy and belonging. Having less flexibility in doing their work could offset a lower level of emotional stability, thus promoting their well-being at work.
  • For these employees, the greater flexibility that is offered by telework can lead to increased tensions.
  • For these employees, even a limited number of telework hours could increase tensions.

ACTIONS EMPLOYERS CAN TAKE

The secret to managing telework is in the support offered to employees!

Take into account employees’ personalities

Taking personality into account does not mean choosing who will work remotely based on a particular personality type. Rather, it means supervising each employee in a personalized way based on their needs. For example, it is possible to give more autonomy to an employee who demonstrates greater emotional stability, who will therefore be more effective in a telework situation.

Besides personality, other individual factors are important to consider in predicting the success of telework, such as motivations, interests, perceptions and expertise. It is important to take the time to talk to employees and involve them in the decision-making process to encourage success.

Balance telework and the level of management

Although employees may want to have telework arrangements, related challenges can represent stress factors and, eventually, lead to tensions.

Adequate organizational support can promote the development of a greater sense of control for the employee, and even mitigate a lower degree of personal resources.

Certain measures can help employees who work far from the office:

  • Offer training on managing requests and how to take advantage of the benefits of telework;
  • Provide equipment that is appropriate for telework;
  • State clearly the expectations when it comes to procedures and performance;
  • Ensure that there is regular contact (virtual or face to face).

Consider alternatives

Limiting the scope of telework and/or offering other forms of flexibility, such as flexible schedules, can be an attractive alternative for those who cannot flourish in intensive telework.

Ensure ongoing follow-up

Among the main risks related to telework, employees mention excessive workload, work–family conflicts, lack of access to information, and isolation. These risks can increase in intensity when the number of hours of telework increases, which calls for additional vigilance in cases where the number of hours of telework is increased.

Based on the levels of employee autonomy and emotional stability, the amount of telework can affect tensions and well-being to a greater or lesser degree, and can raise the related risks. These can increase disengagement, dissatisfaction and burnout. It is therefore crucial to survey remote workers regularly about their situation and plan any necessary readjustments.

NOTE! When work done remotely involves a large number of interactions among employees, it is important to prepare them to communicate with each other virtually: that is, to ensure that the means of telecommunication are adequate and that they allow work to be done as a team that is equivalent to in-person work. The physical distance creates a psychological distance, which negatively affects confidence, cohesiveness, communication, decision making, mutual recognition and therefore, satisfaction and overall performance.

RECOMMENDATION FROM OUR EXPERTS

Don’t overlook the organizational context!

When it is a question of psychology, everything is determined both by the individual and the situation in which he or she develops. It is therefore essential to take the time to assess the employee’s ability to develop well in a telework context, but also to reflect on the context in which telework occurs in order to optimize it.

The reality is not simple: before implementing telework, it is important to reflect and to analyze whether it offers more advantages than disadvantages for your organization. In addition to looking at the amount of autonomy given to employees, this analysis can focus on the kinds of tasks and jobs affected, the supervision style and support offered, the atmosphere among the team, the use of information and communication technologies, the organizational culture, and how the work is organized.

In short, every context is unique. As a manager, you are in the best position to determine whether this kind of arrangement is of interest to your organization.

TO CITE THIS GLOBAL-WATCH SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION

Leblanc, S., Longpré, P., Fouquet, E., Charbonneau, J. (2018). The challenges of telework. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com

TO CITE THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE BY THE AUTHORS OF THE STUDY

Perry, S. J., Rubino, C. et Hunter, E. M. (2018). Stress in remote work: two studies testing the Demand-Control-Person model. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1-17.

Notes

[1] For more information on the concept of “resources,” see the article Sustainable return to work for individuals with common mental disorders: building on available resources

[2] Spector, P. (1986). Perceived control by employees: A meta-analysis of studies concerning autonomy and participation at work. Human Relations, 39, 1005–1016.

[3] The associate diploma is a US, Canadian or Dutch diploma granted to students who have successfully completed a two-year post-secondary course.

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