Blog Post

Examining the dark side of the remote worker

Dr. Carolyn Axtell of the University of Sheffield's Institute of Work Psychology and iPass' Barbara Nelson at GigaOM Net:Work 2011The growing global remote workforce has had a big impact on business, giving employees more flexibility to slice and dice their personal and business lives and make the most efficient use of time.  But there’s a dark side to detached workforce, as workers find themselves trapped in a mindset that leaves them constantly ‘on the job,’ which could ultimately lead to a loss of productivity, according to a new study by enterprise connectivity provider iPass(s ipas) and the Institute of Work Psychology at the University of Sheffield.

Using data compiled from iPass’ quarterly Mobile Workforce Project reports, the institute’s study (you can see the full text here) found that most remote and mobile workers make the most of their freedom, allowing them to better manage when and where they are on the clock,  the study’s author Carolyn Axtell said at GigaOM’s Net:Work conference on Thursday. These employees effectively use downtime such as commuting or waiting for an appointment to get work done in discreet chunks. Those workers are aided by new mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets to get instant access to their workflow — rather than, say, booting up the laptop — which increases their overall productivity. They’re “moving the ball along,” said iPass CTO Barbara Nelson, which is a very efficient way to use a employee’s time.

But the study also found that a sizable number of workers, 26 percent, are using their newfound flexibility to essentially overwork, clocking 15 hours or more a week of extra time. Those extra hours lead to burnout, causing frustration, fatigue and even leading to mistakes or lack of attention to detail.

“If you’re not giving yourself an opportunity to recover and recharge your batteries, it will have an impact on your well-being and your productivity,” Axtell said. The work you do is no longer your best work, and the drop off in efficiency could lead to little net gain or even an overall decline in output and quality.

How do remote employees head off that inclination to overwork? Axtell said it can often be as simple as defining an action that allows a worker to draw a mental line between work and leisure. One home worker surveyed would simply go out the front door, walk around the house and go back inside, creating the illusion of coming home from the job. If you’re a remote worker, how do you draw the line?

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Photo by Pinar Ozger.

11 Responses to “Examining the dark side of the remote worker”

  1. mschmidlen

    Having been a “remote worker” for the better part of the last 19 years, I can personally attest to the “loneliness & isolation” factor. Fortunately I have the luxury of complete autonomy to come & go as I please and regularly schedule off-site business lunches, meeting in coffee shops and an occasional late afternoon/early evening meeting as well. I also use social media tools (fb, LI, Twitter & Skype) to keep in contact with people and help to keep me “connected”.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      I can relate. When I took this job at GigaOM three weeks ago, I officially became a remote home worker. I was worried I would just fool around. Instead I find myself forgetting to eat lunch and canceling plans with friends after work. I’m starting to get my groove though.

      • Nicole Solis

        For remote/mobile workers, the tricky part is that, as Cyndy alluded to, work isn’t providing the work-life boundaries for you any more. If work isn’t a place you go to for pre-determined hours of the day, how do you know when to switch off? You have to tell yourself. With that freedom of the work schedule comes a far greater responsibility for the individual worker to be aware of their own needs (which can be hard), set boundaries for themselves to take care of those needs, and last but not least, communicate those boundaries — and defend them, if necessary — to their coworkers and managers.

        Though, to be fair, I work in the office most of the time, and I still often forget to eat lunch and rarely take a lunch break.

    • I’d guess that most are. I’ve been a remote worker for over 10 years now. Because there’s no switch between office and home, you find you often don’t take lunches (or if you do, it’s enough time to walk into another room and make a sandwich before sitting back down to eat).

      There’s no “off” button for most remote workers. Home is work and work is home, and without co-workers leaving around you to let you know it’s time to log off or end for the day, you often find yourself working well past “assigned” hours.

      There’s also none of the break time of walking to someone’s cube or having someone stop by yours, and even when you do IM or Skype, odds are you are still working at the same time, multi-tasking, which would be both obvious and rude in an office environment.

      There are definite perks, like my work attire being pajamas, and being able to take an hour at a different time to attend school things for my kids, but based on hours alone? I’d say I missed working in an office for that.

      • rick gregory

        “Because there’s no switch between office and home…”

        I think someone who’s going to work at home regularly really needs a room as a dedicated office for this reason. I’ve made one room my office. When I’m done, I leave it and go watch TV, read or surf the web in another room. The home office is ‘work’, the rest of the house is not. The room’s not big… 8×10 or so… but having a space where I’m ‘at work’ has helped a lot.

        Skipping lunch, etc isn’t a work at home thing.. that’s just inattention to your own needs and something that everyone needs to watch. You may not take lunch at the same time, but you need to eat, stand up and take a break etc.

      • Kevin Fitchard

        That’s a great point, Rick. Having another place to access the Internet from would be ideal. By doing personal stuff on my laptop, I invariable start doing work stuff as well. Maybe I should designate my iPad as my after hours device and get nowhere near my computer…

      • rick gregory

        “Maybe I should designate my iPad as my after hours device and get nowhere near my computer…” BING BING BING…. that’s exactly what I’ve done. Nothin fancy… the basic 16g wifi only iPad2. But it’s got Zite, Feedly, Flipboard and other stuff, plus ereaders for the Nook, Kindle and iBooks. IN fact, I’m about to pickup and move into the other room.

        The combination of having a room that’s an office and moving from laptop to iPad really reinforces the division when I want to. I just backed Touchfire so I’ll get one of their keyboard overlays (hit which will make it a bit easier to do text on the iPad and thus make me less likely to want to grab the laptop which usually means I check work stuff “since I have the laptop…”