Working from Home: blessing or curse? Professor Sharon Parker has the answers (and yes, there’s more than one).

24.31 minutes

Contributors

Sharon Parker

ARC Laureate Fellow, Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, and Professor of Management & Organisations in the Curtin Business School.

Pyjamas, commuting from bed to your desk just minutes after waking up, no boss looking over your shoulde­r–working from home sounds like a dream. But what about the pressures from family, bad technology, and lack of support from colleagues? Professor Sharon Parker, from the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University, and Laureate from the Australian Research Council discusses the Australian workforce’s adjustment to isolated work. Listen to her and host Ginger Gorman as they theorise about the future of the Australian workforce.

TRANSCRIPT FROM THIS EPISODE:

[Start of recorded material]

Ginger Gorman:    [00:02] Good day and thanks for tuning into Seriously Social. This is the podcast where we use the lens of the social sciences to help us consider all kinds of tricky aspects of Australian society, our relationships, human connections and societal structures. We get experts to help us get new insights and also help us think about things in new ways.

This season, we are focusing on our world in transition and in just a moment, I will be joined by Professor Sharon Parker from the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University. She’s also an Australian Research Council Laureate and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

One of the main reasons we wanted to get Sharon onto our podcast is because so many of us have had to transform our work practises in the pandemic and Sharon is an expert in high quality work and future work practise.

Sharon, thank you so much [01:00] for joining me.

Sharon Parker:       Thanks, Ginger. It’s great to be here.

Ginger:                  Let’s start on the building blocks of this, Sharon. What is quality work? What does that mean?

Sharon:                  It’s a really important question, Ginger, because I think a lot of people assume that what makes quality work is a big salary and high status. And I reflect on, for example, my teenagers and the sort of jobs that they are sometimes attracted to. They’re the lawyers and the doctors and things like this. But quality work is actually work that is physically healthy, mentally healthy and productive.

And in terms of mental health, it’s not just about having work that doesn’t make you sick and doesn’t make you ill. That’s sort of one spin on mental health. Mental health is also actually about feeling that you’re growing, learning, that you’re competent at your work. And so, quality work also engenders [02:00] that broader sense of wellbeing.

It means you feel you’ve got some purpose, you’re making a contribution, you’ve got variety, you feel challenged. Sometimes, those things happen to line up with good pay and status, but I’ve talked to many very burnt-out and frustrated doctors and lawyers, and I’ve talked on the other hand, many times to hairdressers or people who have perhaps less high-status jobs, but find their work meaningful, challenging and interesting.

Ginger:                  I wonder, Sharon, listening to you talking and listening to you explaining in depth what makes quality work, why so few of us actually experience this in our everyday lives.

Sharon:                  There’s a whole bunch of different factors, actually. One of it comes down to a misunderstanding sometimes by managers about how to actually manage people well and [03:00] how to design good work for people. Just as an example, we did some research where we actually got people to create some work for people and then we looked at the quality of that work.

And people have this sort of natural tendency to design what we call Taylorist jobs. You would know from after the Industrial Revolution, people came to work in factories. And Frederick Taylor came along and sort of invented the assembly line and really created work that was really, really narrow for people.

He created jobs where, for example, your job was literally to turn a nut on a wheel when you’re making a car all day long. And sort of the argument behind that was it’s much more efficient because, if you’ve got someone who’s just turning that nut on the wheel and that’s all they do, they should be very fast at it. And also, it’s very easy to train them because that’s all they have to think about. So, this is this notion of Taylorism [04:00] and it became very dominant after the Industrial Revolution, but it sort of hasn’t gone away. So, that’s one factor that impairs the quality of work.

The other side of it, I guess, is also things like the pressure that’s on people. In theory, our work is meant to be getting easier and we’re all meant to be having so much technology that we spend half our time in leisure and all that sort of stuff. But in fact, the reality is work’s becoming more intense for many people and that’s partly as a consequence of things like globalisation. And globalisation means that all these organisations are trying to be competitive globally and then that means that they’ve got to sort of put more pressure on people. So, there’s those sorts of bigger picture factors as well that play a role in the quality of work.

Ginger:                  And I know myself, Sharon, as a freelancer that the technology can almost own you in a kind of a way because you’re constantly, if you let yourself, responding to [05:00] emails, responding to messages and so forth whereas I think, before mobile phones, you finished at five and that was it. You didn’t start work again until you went into the office the next day.

Sharon:                  Yeah, and this is actually a phenomenon that we refer to as like an ‘always-on’ culture. And you’re exactly right that when mobile phones became very prevalent, one of the advantages is you can do your work from anywhere. One of the disadvantages is that you’re sort of sometimes expected to then do your work from anywhere at any time, and you’re expected to sort of be always on.

And certainly, that was something that we also observed during the pandemic, pressure for people to just keep working and be available at all times and so on. And, as you can imagine, that sort of always-on culture is bad for people’s relationships with their families and also their levels of stress.

Ginger:                  You mentioned the pandemic there and that’s another sort of arena that we’ve seen where our home [06:00] lives are crashing into our work lives. How has the pandemic transformed work?

Sharon:                  Yeah. It’s actually obviously had a huge impact. If we can just talk a little bit about the sort of flexible working pre-pandemic, in Australia, we had about 9% to 20%, depends on which study you look at, people working flexibly from home, and usually, just a couple of days a week. If you think about who that was, it was mostly people for whom the work was quite suitable. It was mostly people for whom the managers had trust in, in those people and people who wanted to do it, who preferred to do it. So, that was the sort of pre‑COVID situation.

And then, of course, with COVID, large numbers of people having to work at home, whether or not their work was suitable, whether or not that was their preference, whether or not they were set up well with a good office and so on, and technology, and whether or not their [07:00] manager trusted them to do so. So, the situation during the pandemic was really quite different to the flexible working before.

And I’ve heard people say it wasn’t so much working from home, but it was about being at home, trying to do your work during a pandemic. That’s really the situation that people were in at that time. And then, of course, we had things like childcare and kids not being able to go to school and all those sorts of other issues thrown into that mix as well.

Ginger:                  As you say, Sharon, it really has been an unprecedented shock for the workforce and I know that you recently undertook a survey of more than 1,200 workers in the pandemic. Can you tell me what you found was happening inside people’s homes/workplaces?

Sharon:                  Yeah. So, in fact, the survey is still going because we’ve repeated the survey nine times. So, some [08:00] fantastic participants in our survey, whom we’re forever grateful to have already done the survey eight times and we’re asking them actually to do it nine times. And we wanted to do that sort of what we call a longitudinal design because that really enables us to understand how things change because, of course, things have been changing rapidly during this time.

Some of the preliminary results though that have come out of the survey, one is that the level of psychological distress in the population is higher than previously. So pre-pandemic, if we use a particular measure of mental health that’s widely used, called the K6, around about 13% of the Australian population had high levels of psychological distress, high or very high levels of distress. So, 13%. In our survey of that 1,200, we’re looking at around about 22% of people having high [09:00] or very high distress.

Ginger:                  Wow. It’s nearly double, isn’t it?

Sharon:                  Yeah. And I have to tell you also, we’ve done a survey looking at FIFO workers, so fly-in, fly-out workers during the pandemic because many of them had super long rosters, so they were often away from their family for 14 weeks or so at a time. In that survey, we found 40% of the FIFO workers have high or very high levels of psychological distress. So, the 20% we found in the working from home study is huge, but gosh, the FIFO workers are a very vulnerable group of workers right now.

But then I think you can ask a really important question, which is, “Well, isn’t that just because of the pandemic? Everyone’s all uncertain and nobody knows what’s going to happen and people are worried about their health.” And the answer to that question is, yes, that’s partly why the psychological distress was high.

But also, [10:00] and this is really what we focused on in our study, there are also sort of some work pressures as a result of working from home that contributed to this sense of psychological distress.

Ginger:                  Yeah, I noted that in your preliminary findings, you said it wasn’t necessarily causal, but it was correlated. So, what distinction are you making there?

Sharon:                  And this is why we do the longitudinal studies because we can look at that causality, if we’ve got longitudinal data. But what we found, and to be honest, this has probably been shown in some other studies as well, so I think we can be reasonably confident. But we found that some of the things that predicted people having more psychological distress, well, some of them are things like if you’re on a contract, a short-term contract, you feel more distressed and that’s mostly attributable to people feeling more financial strain. [11:00]

We found that if people feel insecure about their work, they’ve got more distress. This wouldn’t surprise anyone. But we also found some things, like the degree to which people were being closely monitored by their bosses during FIFO work was an important predictor of distress. We also found that their level of support people had from their colleagues was a really important predictor of distress and more.

So, there were more of these what we would refer to as work factors that were making a difference. And one of the big ones was work-home conflict because, at the time that we did this, which was in April, most people with small children, it was a time where the day-care centres were closing and home-schooling was happening, so unsurprisingly, those people that were having to juggle the home and work were experiencing more [12:00] psychological distress.

We found things like having hassles with your information systems, your computer was a big predictor of distress. And uncivil communication was another predictor. Some people were experiencing their colleagues and things being really rude to them and even clients being really rude to them at this time of pressure. So, a whole bunch of things we observed about people’s work from home that contributed to that greater level of distress.

Ginger:                  It’s really interesting, isn’t it, because what I’m hearing you say is that, actually, people are having very diverse experiences. So, some people who’ve got young kids may be really struggling, whereas you might have others who may in fact relish that autonomy and relish the fact that they can go and put a load of washing on at lunch hour or call a friend not under the eye of their [13:00] bosses, for example.

Sharon:                  Absolutely. And that is really, really important to understand. There’s a lot of conversation now about remote working versus not remote working, which is best. And it really, honestly, depends on many things. It depends on the work itself, whether it’s even amenable to do remotely, and some work isn’t. It depends on the people and their preferences.

We found certain sorts of personalities respond better to working from home and, of course, it depends on how well their work is designed. That also makes a difference. So, the diversity is really important to recognise and particularly that diversity that you can do something about.

It might be a bit more challenging to change everyone’s personality to make it fit better with remote work, but we can certainly change the quality of the work. We can change things like the support that people get from their colleagues and their managers, which are really important [14:00] protective factors during this time.

And it’s worth mentioning, actually, we specifically asked people, “How productive do you feel that you’re being now, compared to in the past?” And we had pretty much a one-third, one-third, one-third split. One third saying they’re less productive, one third saying they’re about the same and one third saying actually they are more productive during this time for all sorts of reasons, one being that flexibility, another being just the time saved commuting.

We actually asked people, “How much time are you saving commuting?” And on average, it was 78 minutes. And about one-third of the people that are saving that commuting were spending it on work. So, you can see, again, you get this very diverse experience. Some people flourishing, love it, it suits their personality, they don’t have children that are under three years old, running around, driving them crazy. Other people have got [15:00] other preferences or other life circumstances, or even work that you can’t do at home. Obviously, during the pandemic, some people had to work at home and really, their work was not that conducive to being at home.

Ginger:                  And I noted that a lot of people felt quite isolated and one of the tips or key messages you had for workers at the end of your preliminary findings was to actively plan to connect with colleagues and build high-quality relationships. Now, I found this fascinating because I’m actually doing work for a non‑profit and the effort that they are putting in to keeping everybody connected is quite astounding. And it really does show up in the quality of the work. And in fact, some people have said they feel more connected in the pandemic than they ever have before.

Sharon:                  Yeah. That’s so interesting. And I think many people made a big effort because it was thrown upon people, and so, there was a huge effort around providing that support [16:00] to people. And of course, everyone was worried about loneliness. I know that good managers were doing things, like having regular one-on-one check‑ins. They were encouraging people to have those informal conversations, like the watercooler‑type conversations that you miss out on when you’re at home and all sorts of things, good practises that people were doing. But others were not getting that. And they were really suffering as a consequence.

And actually, I’ve just looked at the social support findings over time. It goes down. So, I think I would really have a question about how effectively we sustain that support over time. I think at the beginning, there was a lot of focus and attention, but are managers and coworkers able to sustain that? That’s something I think that we’ll certainly have to revisit into the future.

Ginger:                  Yes. And I think when there’s an emergency, everybody comes together, but when [17:00] it goes on for long periods of time, that sense of urgency fades away.

Sharon:                  Yeah, absolutely. And if we look at the research that was conducted on remote working pre-pandemic. Obviously, there were years and years of research on this topic. Overall, I should say, research suggests that people who work remotely, and this is pre‑pandemic I’m talking about, tend to be more satisfied, more committed to their organisation. They have lower work-family conflict and mostly because of this grey autonomy that you get when you’re working from home.

So, although there’s some mixed evidence, overall pretty positive picture for those people, those select number of people that were working from home, usually not necessarily very intensively. But some of that research highlighted the biggest issue with remote working is this collaboration and teamwork and how it’s actually more difficult [18:00] to do that remotely. So, I think that’s something again really important into the future if we enhance our degree of flexible working is to really pay more attention to how do we collaborate effectively.

If you work mostly on your own and you do what we would call fairly independent work, this is not such an issue. Really, the connection there is more about human connection and social connection, and not feeling lonely and putting in effort to do that. But if you do this more interdependent work, so you have to work quite closely with other people, all the research shows it’s just not as easy to do that remotely. It’s harder to build the trust that you need to work effectively and innovatively as a team.

Ginger:                  What do you make then of this notion some companies are announcing that everyone will now be working from home all of the time.

Sharon:                  Yeah. So, there’s been this sort of every week [19:00] in the newspaper a new company announces, “Hey, we’ve discovered people can be trusted. So, wow, we’re going to allow them all to work from home.” And I’m sure the finance officers, their eyes are lighting up at the savings in office costs and so on. And I really hope that going forward, we preserve some of this flexibility.

One of the questions we ask people in the survey, actually, is, “Would you like to continue at least some degree of working from home?” Eighty-nine percent, I think, said they would. And people talked about all the things they’ve learnt, more technological skills. Some have even learnt how to manage their time better. They’ve learnt how to communicate effectively remotely. So, we’ve got all this great learning, so hopefully some of that flexibility will be preserved into the future.

But equally, to sort of throw out the office is probably a [20:00] bit of a knee-jerk response that needs a bit more thinking because, as I’ve said, that community that comes from coming into the office, that informal interaction and the role that it plays in innovation and teamwork is really, really important. And we know from pre-COVID times that companies that were having a lot of remote workers really struggled with this.

And in fact, IBM and Yahoo, and lots of company, actually abandoned their remote working experiments because they felt that they were losing productivity and innovation from this sort of not such a strong ability to work together as a team.

So, I think, in a sense, we need to find what’s the right balance between the benefits of working from home, and that autonomy and flexibility, and also the benefits though of the office. And the sort of balance will depend a bit on all sorts of factors. It will depend on the type of work. [21:00] It will depend on people’s preferences.

When we came back to work, some of my colleagues, the ones with small children mostly, were like, “Oh, it’s so wonderful to be back in the office and just to have the whole day to focus on work.” So, it’s going to depend on people’s preferences. And then, of course, it’s really going to depend on how well that work is designed and managed. So, whether it’s at home, whether it’s in the office, in the end, it comes down to that quality work that I talked about before.

Ginger:                  Before I let you go, Sharon, you made a comment there when I laughed when we were talking about trusting your workers, but you’ve actually written a whole article for the Harvard Business Review about how managers who are not trained with remote workers suddenly are being thrown into these roles where they have to manage staff remotely and, in fact, they don’t trust their employees.

Sharon:                  Yeah. And I guess it’s probably true to say that there are managers who don’t trust their employees irrespective of working from home. [22:00] But I think it became a real challenge for some people because, and particularly in areas where remote working was less common, managers were having to manage people without being able to see them, so without line of sight. And that’s really challenging if you haven’t got the skills to do that, and the trust and the training.

It’s a new way of managing people, really because you have to focus much more on what it is that people are delivering, or the results or the outcomes of the work and that’s not the way some managers have been trained or even have observed. In fact, one of our findings was that managers who themselves were being, in a sense, micromanaged, or I call it electronically tethered to the desk and sort of had to be there and they had someone checking up on them, if they themselves experienced that sort of close monitoring, they were much more likely to report that that was how they were managing [23:00] their own people and so on. So, I mean, we learn management often off the managers around us.

So, I think this sort of created a real recipe for some people of high stress and ultimately, impaired performance because, in the end, if you’ve got a manager constantly checking up on you and expecting you to be at your desk at all times, it’s not very motivating and it’s not very conducive to you putting in your best effort.

Ginger:                  Sharon, thank you so much for your time.

Thank you again for listening to Seriously Social. Don’t forget, if you like what you are hearing, share our podcast with your friends and on your social channels and rate us wherever you get your podcasts from.

[End of recorded material]