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 2011

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 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.

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