My research on homeworking during the pandemic reveals the appeal of hybrid working, whereby employees work some of the time at home and some of it on-site. It shows that its popularity reflects the contradictory nature of homeworking. The study of university employees – of all types, academics and non-academics – identified two contradictions inherent to homeworking:
- the lack of social interaction, which on the one hand diminishes the ability of people to do their job, while on the other hand the lack of interruptions increases it.
- spending more time at home, on the one hand, increases contact with family members with positive effects on well-being, while, on the other hand, it reduces the ability of employees to detach from work, which has negative effects on well-being.
Hybrid working is a way of managing these contradictions so employees achieve a more integrated life. The majority of participants in the study came to this view during their experimentation with homeworking, in most cases for the first time. As one said, “For me, homeworking is Janus-headed, a two-sided coin. Yeah, I really enjoy the ability to concentrate better and focus. But I missed being able to engage with people… daily contact”. As another participant put it, “There is no social interaction, its all work and home, but on the positive side of things I don’t get many interruptions.
Consistent with the positive poles of the two contradictions, participants included the lack of interruptions and seeing more of their family in the aspects of homeworking that they liked. References to being more, or at least as, productive as when on-site, were mostly about how people could develop more of a rhythm to their workflow, focus more on priorities and give more in-depth consideration of tasks.
Consistent with the negative poles of the contradictions, problems associated with homeworking included social isolation and difficulties detaching from work. Negative emotional states related to isolation involved feelings of being disconnected or lonely, of life becoming mundane and a reduced sense of purpose. Those relating to the inability to detach from work included a state of permanent juggling, being ‘always on’, and anxiety about one’s achievements. The elongation of the working days was particularly mentioned as contributing to problems of disconnecting from work, which in turn adversely affected people’s ability to sleep and recover from work.
Managing the contradictions in homeworking is itself a source of stress undermining people’s peace of mind. For example, there is the tension involved in deciding, on the one hand, between whether to complete a task on one’s own or, on the other hand, disturb a colleague, delay completion waiting for a reply to a query, or accept suboptimal performance. There is the tension between being free to get on with one’s work whilst being in a position to be interrupted by family members. One mother referred to this tension as “psychologically distressing”. Another talked of her dislike of “having to shoo her children away when they leaped into her study when they came home from school”. Reacting to this, another mother referred to the ubiquity and cumulative effect of such stressors. Similarly, a member of another group said, “I think it is just that there’s lots and lots of little constant stresses that just build up to make life not normal”.
The tensions people felt arising from the contradictions of homeworking were reflected in their discussions of its counteracting effects on productiveness. One full-time researcher summed it up thus: “I feel at times more productive and at times less productive”.
In discussing productiveness and how they were more focused, participants were concluding that they were more effective, not necessarily more efficient. The major gain is likely to be in the quality of the outputs and timely completion of tasks, and if there is a productivity gain it as likely to come through these rather through intensification of effort. For example, through being more focused when writing reports or articles, people make less errors in their first drafts so the time to correct them, or even to proof read, is less.
On the other hand, the problems surrounding physical isolation and work detachment were perceived as constraining performance. For example, while the extent and effects of the curtailment of ideas and learning due to physical isolation were impossible for participants to know, their discussion of the social deprivation of homeworking implied it has some effect on their speed of response to problems, the time period over which tasks are completed and may limit their priorities. Where people felt homeworking had affected their sense of purpose, or they were faced with excessive juggling of task, they suggested it was more difficult to engage with their work. As one person said, “I have these two jobs here, being a mother, being a manager, I couldn’t really fulfil either of them to the extent I wanted”.
What I conclude from my research is that the rise of hybrid working is not a matter of homeworking being the best of both worlds, or that people had pre-existing preferences toward homeworking and hybrid is a compromise. Or that they are certain they are consistently more productive at home. Homeworking’s contradictory nature means in its pure form it can never be a perfect answer, but this means that hybrid working has the potential to be an alternative imperfectly perfect working arrangement.
Stephen Wood will be speaking at a Webinar on the Appeal of Hybrid Working as part of the University of Leicester’s events for the ESRC Festival of Social Science in 21st October at 15.00 –16.30. He will be joined by Professor Michael Clinton of King’s College, London, Prof Lotte Bailyn of MIT, and Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development CIPD. Enrolment via: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-appeal-of-hybrid-working-tickets-402489265227.