Is The Grass Greener On The Other Side?

There’s lot of positive press about the purported benefits of new work practices such as telecommuting, desk sharing and home working to companies’ staff.
The question I wanted to test was how mobile work style incorporating the telecommuting work practices affected the work and home/personal life balance of staff involved. I also wanted to determine how control group of non-mobile staff within the same company perceived mobile work style would affect their lives, to measure the reality against the perceptions.
The questionnaire I designed was based on ground-breaking study by IBM in the USA context, and I found major multinational company, Ernst & Young New Zealand, willing to participate. What follows are the key findings of my study, plus three important suggestions for companies wanting to introduce telecommuting to their staff.

Perceived benefits of mobile telework
In theory, flexibility in work arrangements can empower individuals with the control to integrate and overlap work responsibilities and personal/family responsibilities in time and space, helping staff to achieve healthy work and personal life balance.
However there are differing opinions as to the actual benefits. One key concern is the prospect that the boundary between work and personal/home life would become blurred such as to have detrimental impact on the personal/home life of mobile workers. My case study found both the theory and the key concern to be true.
Nearly 75 percent of all respondents considered they had benefited or would benefit from mobile work style (graph 1).
A subsequent question asked about the influence mobility was perceived to have, or had had, on people’s personal/home lives.
Overall 67 percent were positive about mobility’s effect on their personal/home lives (graph 2).
However cross-tabulating by mobility, considerably more non-mobile people were positive than mobile – 75 percent v 56 percent. This comparative result was repeated trend through the questionnaire responses.
While few mobile staff were actually negative about their mobile work style, only around half perceived some clear benefits could be attributed to it, with the rest undecided.
By contrast, far higher percentage of staff working in the traditional office regime saw mobility as catalyst for better work/personal life balance. Perceptions often surpassed the reality in this case study.

Work and personal/home life balance
In terms of the total amount of time spent ?working’, mobile staff worked longer hours than their non-mobile counterparts, but not to significant extent.
More non-mobile staff actually found it easy to balance their work and their personal/home lives than mobile staff (50 percent non-mobile v 42 percent mobile).
A former study found that some employees may at times be reluctant to use the flexibility their roles could afford them. Some people could use the mobile technology simply to extend their hours at home after regular hours without any compensating benefit to their personal/home life during normal working hours.
This is trap we in New Zealand could easily fall into, and some respondents to my case study may be making this mistake.

Household chores and child care
One of the potential benefits of the mobile work style is said to be greater flexibility to manage household chores and child care. Women, who bear the brunt of household and child care responsibilities, are often expected to benefit most from this flexibility.
However many observers caution telecommuters about the pitfalls of overlapping paid work with dependent care. While overall, over 44 percent were positive about the question of whether mobile work style had/would have positive influence on their ability to complete household chores (graph 3), I found when I cross-tabulated by mobility, only 33 percent of mobile staff were positive to the question.
This contrasted with 54 percent of non-mobile staff who perceived that mobility would have positive influence.

Family relationships
As generalisation, telecommuting should increase the amount of interaction between the telecommuter and family members.
Telecommuters note that coffee break times are frequently spent with family members.
Yet, others have found negative connections between telecommuting and family relationships.
In my study, of 57.5 percent total positive response to the question of mobility’s influence on relationships with spouse/partner (graph 4), 48 percent of mobile workers were quite positive compared with 64 percent of non-mobile staff.
Perceptions of the benefits of mobility were again shown to be more positive than the reality.
There were also gender differences in the family relationships responses. Forty-six percent of males felt mobility had/would have positive influence on their relationships with their children, compared with only 20 percent of females. The remaining 80 percent of females were unsure about the question.
Overall, those who worked at home some of the time within their mobile work style were found significantly more likely to respond positively to this question. Logically, sustaining and building family relationships, particularly with children requires spending quality time together.
Those who work at home some of their time are probably able to spend more time with their children and/or spouse, with better relationships being the result.
As indicated in write-in comments in the responses, staff often pick up their work again, when children have gone to bed.

Social interaction at home
The question of what effect mobility had or was perceived to have on time for social interaction at home drew the widest variance in terms of responses of mobile and non-mobile staff. This question was particularly important in the overall assessment of the benefits of mobility on achieving work/personal/home life balance.
Time available for social interaction at home is key measure of life balance for most people. Sixty-three percent of non-mobile staff perceived that mobility would create more time for social interaction.
However only 32 percent of mobile staff experienced this in practice. The ?grass being greener’ maxim seems true in this case study.
Conventional office workers see their mobile counterparts leaving the office, and imagine their lives being far more beneficial, and probably more balanced and relaxed than their own. This was shown not to be the case for many mobile workers.

Summary views
My case study at Ernst & Young New Zealand found mobile, telecommuting work style to be offering some benefits to staff in their difficult task of achieving work/personal life balance.
However the level of enthusiasm shown by mobile workers to their mobile lifestyle was less than convincing and it was evident that mobility will not always be the panacea for balancing home and work lives.
I found that key issue in this assessment will be the ability of the person to work at home for part of their time.
If they are simply ?on the road’ for much of their time, or based with client as was the case with many of my respondents, their ability to intersperse personal tasks with work tasks will be limited and mobility might actually impede the attainment of work and personal life balance.
From the lessons of my New Zealand case study and its forerunner in the USA context, I have three key suggestions for companies wanting to introduce or broaden telecommuting work programme.

1. Establish formal work/personal life balance policy
Retaining good staff will provide you with the competitive edge you need to succeed. Establish formal policy to ensure staff’s lives are not out of balance (my case study subject Ernst & Young has already taken this important step). Be a

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