Working from home is a growing trend in businesses across the UK, with the popularity of cloud-based office tech and the corporate obsession with email tennis. But how should employees who are working from home be managed, especially when they can’t be seen at their desks from nine to five? Can they be trusted to work just as hard as their colleagues at the office?
These are among the dilemmas facing both workers and managers, according to new research from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).
The research reveals that job performance in working from home is driven by employee self-regulation and freedom in decision-making rather through managerial or peer control. RSM’s Nick van der Meulen gathered data from 1450 employees at four public and private organisations that have working from home arrangements in place to assess the best methods of management and increased job performance.
Employees and managers were asked a series of questions which included the frequency of communication with their manager, the extent to which they work from home, job performance, manager trust, peer monitoring and the relationship they have with their manager.
“The boundaries of the office structure have changed and with it management has had to shift its approach. The results of our survey showed that managers need to offer trust and freedom to get the most from their employees in return. Any failure by managers to offer this was found to be highly detrimental,” says van der Meulen.
“Practitioners and management experts alike tend to refer to trust as an unavoidable prerequisite for telework: without it, telework would not be possible. We found that managers need to support employees through frequent communication, ideally several times a week. This will help to maintain a trusting relationship with their employees, which forms the basis for the provision of employee self-determination or autonomy,” he adds.
“We advocate that managers provide employees with absolute freedom to decide for themselves how to best do their jobs. This triggers increased teleworker job performance and prevents negative work behaviours.”
Similarly, a separate piece of research into workplace culture from the University of Birmingham Business School found that employees with higher levels of autonomy in their work reported positive effects on their overall well-being and higher levels of job satisfaction.
The researchers examined changes in reported well-being relative to levels of autonomy using two separate years of data for 20,000 employees from the Understanding Society survey. The research, published in the journal Work and Occupations, found that levels of autonomy differed considerably between occupations and by gender.
“Greater levels of control over work tasks and schedule have the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, which was found to be evident in the levels of reported well-being. The positive effects associated with informal flexibility and working at home, offer further support to the suggestion that schedule control is highly valued and important to employees “enjoying” work,” University of Birmingham Business School’s Dr Daniel Wheatley says.
The study found compelling evidence to suggest that men and women were affected in different ways by the type of autonomy they experienced.
For women, flexibility over the timing and location of their work appeared to be more beneficial allowing them to balance other tasks such as family commitments. Wheatley believes the manner of work and control over work schedule was found to be more relevant to the well-being of female employees, particularily when balancing work and life.
“Flexibility in work location, specifically homeworking, benefited women with caring responsibilities allowing them to better manage paid work alongside the household,” he explains. Men were found to be more impacted by job tasks, pace of work, and task order.
The research also highlighted that despite the reported increased levels of well-being, in many cases managers remain unwilling to offer employees greater levels of autonomy and the associated benefits, because their primary role remains one of ‘control and effort extraction.’
The RSM research pointed to managerial practices that have to be avoided, such as inequitable treatment between in-office and at-home employees, work monitoring through technology, or short to medium-term target-setting. “These would simply curb opportunistic behaviour and thereby constitute a breach in healthy working relationships with employees,” says van der Meulen.
And for managers worried that employees working from home may be shirking work, this is erased by the evidence of a positive relationship between the extent of telework and number of hours worked. On average, full-time teleworkers perform just as well as those who do no telework at all — even under conditions of infrequent communication with the manager, low peer performance monitoring, and no outcome reward systems.
A Direct Line For Business study into remote working cements this further. Over a third of small business owners believe the greatest benefit of remote working is the flexibility of being able to operate from multiple locations, such as working on the way to and from meetings, as well as other advantages like a better work life balance, greater productivity and reduced operational and transport costs. In that context, keeping tabs on skivers and workaholics may be a small price to pay.