You’re a web worker and you’re all kitted out: You have your home office achievement cockpit with the latest smartphone and laptop complete with a well-researched array of apps, as well as a ninja-level system for time and information management. You’re ready to confront everything the world of remote collaboration throws at you, so why are you constantly so stressed?
Recent research presented at the Academy of Management by University of Michigan management professor Susan Ashford reveals you’re not alone. For the study, Ashford interviewed a selection of solo workers from IT professionals to graphic designers and novelists to find out what challenges workers who leave the office behind for a more self-reliant work style are facing.
These challenges, it turns out, are more often internal than is generally acknowledged. “When you read the practical literature on working from home, people talk about creating an office, getting file drawers and managing your time, and there’s nothing wrong with those things. They’re all important, but they don’t talk about what’s going on at a level underneath that, which is really more about how you manage your ego,” Ashford told WebWorkerDaily in an interview.
Ego management was a general problem throughout her interviews as solo workers struggled without the supportive structure of an office “that creates incentives whereby you work even if you’re not motivated. Your boss is sitting there. Your co-workers are around you. You just work.” Take away that structure and questions about the value and meaning of work start to bubble up more frequently.
That’s why “people who work in regular jobs have mid-life crises. People who work on their own just have daily crises,” says Ashford.
So what was the key to handling the many, mini crises of ego-taxing web work? You need careful thought about how to conceptualize your work and what it means to you. Before switching to solo work, Ashford’s interviewees told her,
You should do some deep exploration of who you are as a person and what motivates you, what undermines you, that kind of thing. We just want to get a job. We go into a groove and we don’t do as much of the exploration of who we are. But who you are is so prominent in solitary work. You are the tool through which you do it all, and if you don’t have a good understanding of that, it’s pretty easy to get thrown off the track.
The work of ego management doesn’t end with some self-reflection before you embark on the web worker lifestyle. Ashford’s interviewees continually strove to conceptualize their work in a larger way, to understand its meaning. Take the rug maker she spoke with, who after five hours in her basement hooking away at her latest creation, reminds herself that “long after I’m dead my rugs will be in homes around the country and giving people pleasure.”
Nor is it as simple as finding the discipline to pretend you’re at the office when you’re really at home, one man who worked as a mathematical modeler told Ashford.
‘I don’t want to set up my life to be working out of my home exactly the way I would be in an office. I don’t want to make myself get there at eight and stay until six and take ten-minute breaks. The beauty of working in this way is you get to have a different kind of life.’ What is interesting is you don’t really want to take the easy way out of the problem of what does it mean by putting yourself in a rigid structure, which would help you stay motivated. You’re giving up all the benefit of working this way, so you want to go with the more flowing structure. But that puts you in the problem of keeping yourself going and motivating yourself and that’s where these internal dialogues, this meaning making makes a real difference.
How do you manage the ego challenges of the web worker lifestyle?