BBC News

Is teleworking driving us crazy?

By Matthew Wall
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionWorking from home can for many people mean finding it hard to know when work ends and life begins

There are strong arguments in favour of remote or teleworking. Time saved not having to commute into a central office can translate into higher productivity, better quality of life, and give people with families more flexibility over how they organise their time.

High-speed broadband and secure virtual private networks now make teleworking feasible without posing a threat to corporate security, while more remote workers and flexible hours mean smaller offices and lower overheads for businesses.

Most importantly, workers seem to like it.

In August 2012, UK mobile phone operator Vodafone said most workers in London and the Home Counties now wanted to work more flexibly after having tried it during the London Olympics.

Of people surveyed, 24% said they had changed their normal working arrangements over the period, either working from home or another location, to avoid the expected travel restrictions. Productivity had increased as a result, they said, principally because of the time saved not having to commute.

And research by Mitel, published in July, indicated 81% of UK workers, and 87% of younger employees, wanted to escape the nine-to-five culture.

Vodafone says most employers already offer flexible working or are now more open to the idea.

Need to be seen

But what are the downsides? Humans are gregarious creatures. We like face-to-face contact. Will the increased adoption of flexible working lead to isolation and a drop in creative collaboration?

In a work culture still dominated by "presenteeism" - the need to be seen around the office - do teleworkers risk being overlooked when it comes to promotion or new project opportunities?

And as the boundaries between work and family life become increasingly blurred in the "always-on" era of digital communications, what psychological pressure does this put on us and our relationships with partners and families?

A study by the US not-for-profit organisation WorldatWork indicated the number of people working from home or another remote location for an entire day at least once a month fell from 33.7 million in 2008 to 26.2 million in 2010. When the job market is tough, it seems workers fear out of sight really does mean out of mind. The issue particularly affects younger, less established workers.

And a study by the University of Toronto, published in the US Journal of Health and Social Behavior last year, asked participants how often they had been contacted outside the workplace by phone, email, or text about work-related matters.

It indicated women who were contacted frequently by supervisors, co-workers, or clients reported higher levels of psychological distress, principally because they felt guilty. Men were less affected.

Report author Paul Glavin said: "Women are able to juggle their work and family lives just as well as men, but they feel more guilty as a result of being contacted. This guilt seems to be at the heart of their distress."

More hours

In a major study into the wellbeing of mobile workers conducted for iPass, a network provider, Dr Carolyn Axtell, senior lecturer at Sheffield University's Institute of Work Psychology and Management, found more than a quarter of respondents said they worked 15 to 20 hours extra a week, largely because technology enabled them to do so, a trend "likely to have significant repercussions for work-life balance and employee well-being".

image captionDuring the Olympics, millions of Londoners stayed at home to avoid the daily crush on the tube

A third of these workaholics said they had logged on even while on holiday and that this was expected of them by managers and colleagues, leading to greater stress and poorer quality sleep. In turn, this was having a negative impact on family relationships.

Dr Maire Kerrin, of Work Psychology Group, a UK occupational psychology consultancy, says: "Working from home isn't always easy and not everyone adapts to it well. Some find it impossible to switch off the BlackBerry while others switch everything off at a set time every day. One of our clients would lock himself in the bathroom to check his emails because the rest of his family got so annoyed with him checking them all the time."

Good managers will implement protocols to help teleworkers manage their time effectively and "switch off", she says.

image captionIn one survey, 24% of teleworkers said distractions made them less productive

Vodafone's survey found 24% of respondents felt they had become less productive working from home, saying they were easily distracted and interrupted.

And Dr Axtell's work suggests productivity actually levels off among those working the longest hours, and even drops over time, as tiredness and stress eventually impair performance.

She says: "There is a fine balance between reaping the benefits of greater flexibility and control over when and where a person works versus working longer hours that may encroach detrimentally on personal life.

"However, when the balance is struck well - mobile workers can achieve a better work-life balance, feel a greater sense of control and well-being, and be more efficient and productive."

Now switch off the smartphone and close down the computer.