Out of Office: Is Remote Work Stressing You OUT?

9 min read | by Sara Perry 
Women Depressed

Another work week has begun and Sonya, HR business partner at a large oil and gas company, and a married mother of three, starts her weekly routine. Before dropping her three kids off at their two separate schools, she makes her daily decision about whether she will go to the office or work from home, or whether she will split her day in multiple locations. She really values this flexibility, since she is the main parent who coordinates after-school care and takes them to the doctor in an emergency. But this also means that she is constantly juggling demands from work and family at the same time, which can be a big weight to carry through each day. On days she does choose to work remotely, she often realizes she needs something she left at the office or wishes she could talk to someone in person instead of over the phone or email. But on days she is at the office, she never feels like she can get any uninterrupted time to focus. Sonya has figured out a way to make it work for her, her colleagues and boss, and her family, for now, but not everyone is so fortunate.

Many U.S. employees believe working from home – or at least away from the office – can bring freedom and stress-free job satisfaction. But this may not always be the case!

Remote Work is a Double-edged Sword

Remote work may function as something researchers call a “challenge stressor,” which means it can help employees to be motivated and well-positioned to do their best work, but it can also be difficult for employees to manage at times. For example, when Sonya wants to work from home, she spends more time coordinating with her business partners compared to when she simply takes the elevator down to see them in person at the office. When Sonya’s boss sends her a vague email request, she may exchange three or four more emails with him instead of just going to his office to ask him to clarify. And although she enjoys the uninterrupted work time at home while her kids are at school, she does miss the social interaction if she stays home too many days in a row – even the small talk at the coffee station gives her some much-needed adult time that she misses when she chooses to work from home several days in a row. Too many days or too much time working away from the office can leave her feeling isolated and a bit lonely. 

Still another aspect that feels challenging to Sonya is her constant juggling of home and work responsibilities, seemingly at the same time. If she works from home and she also has a sick kid at home, she is grateful she does not have to take a sick day or vacation day, but admittedly, she feels torn all day as she attends to her child’s needs and still tries to get her work done. In fact, more often than not, lately she finds herself working after the kids go to bed, ignoring her husband, to try to make up for time she lost during the day in juggling her family duties. When she works at the office and knows she has reliable childcare for the kids after school, she can focus and produce much more efficiently, notwithstanding the time she has to devote to commuting and getting ready for work on those days.

Sonya is surely not alone in the inner conflict she has about her remote work arrangement, especially as the prevalence of remote work has increased. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimated recently that 59% of 2,700 firms across industries offer employees the opportunity to work remotely on a flexible basis like Sonya; 23% of firms offer full-time remote work arrangements and 35% offer part-time remote work arrangements. Recent estimates also suggest that at least 4.7 million employees (3.4% of the workforce) work from home at least 50% of the time, and this group has grown by 173% since 2005.

Researchers have studied the question about how remote work affects employees for over a decade, and the general conclusion is that the success of such arrangements really depends on the person involved, the organization allowing or requiring it, and the details of the remote work arrangement. If all factors are in place and ideal, then employees with the flexibility to choose where they work can experience increased satisfaction and commitment and reduced turnover, lower work-family conflict, a desire to work harder, and are better able to manage the demands of long working hours.  

So the question remains, what type of person, boss, and remote work arrangement is needed to succeed?

A recent study that examines the impact of remote work on employee well-being offers several strategies to help managers provide remote work opportunities that are valuable to the employee and the company. 

The study looked at 403 working adults who were surveyed across two studies that made up the research. The research team measured each employee’s autonomy (the level of a worker’s independence), strain (defined in this study as exhaustion, disengagement and dissatisfaction) and emotional stability.

Emotional Stability

  • Emotional stability captures how even keeled someone is, or on the opposite end, how much their emotions might swing.  
     
  • An example would be if something stressful happens at work, and Sonya is high on emotional stability she would take it in stride, remain positive and figure out how to address it. But if Sonya is low on emotional stability, she might get frustrated and discouraged, expending energy on those emotions instead of on the issue at hand.
     
  • This study shows that those who are high in emotional stability are likely to perform better in remote work situations.  

Autonomy

  • Autonomy is discretion on how to accomplish tasks and make other decisions about work.  Autonomy is considered valuable in general, and especially critical in remote work. Most jobs that allow for remote work have a significant degree of autonomy, but certainly not all.
     
  • Low autonomy can really harm the effectiveness of a remote work arrangement. An example would be if Sonya has to report to her boss about where she will work each day, or if she has to get approval for every major decision she makes throughout the day. The difficulty of this low autonomy would be exacerbated by remote work, as the employee must also navigate the challenges faced in remote work. 
     
  • Employees reporting high levels of autonomy and emotional stability appear to be best equipped to thrive in remote work positions. In contrast, remote employees reporting high levels of job autonomy with lower levels of emotional stability appear to be most susceptible to strain.
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A person holding a lightbulb. An idea from RemotelyOne
Recommendations for Managers Who Design or Oversee Remote Work Arrangements.

Recommendations for Managers Who Design or Oversee Remote Work Arrangements

  1. Any manager, regardless of the extent to which people work remotely, needs to consider well-being of their employees as they implement more flexible working practices.  Considering who they are putting in remote jobs is as critical as which jobs are remote.  
     
  2. Managers should look at employee behaviors, rather than for personality traits, per se.  For example, if someone does not handle stress well in the office, they are not likely to handle it well at home either. If someone gets overwhelmed easily or reacts in concerning ways to requests or issues in the office, they are likely less well suited to work remotely and handle that responsibility and stress.
     
  3. Based on this study, individuals with high emotional stability and high levels of autonomy are better suited for remote work, but such candidates might not always be available.  If less emotionally stable individuals must work remotely, managers should take care to provide more resources, including support to help foster strong working relationships with coworkers.
     
  4. Managers should also consider providing proper training and equipment for remote work, including suitable separation of work and family spaces, clear procedural and performance expectations, and regular contact (virtual or face-to-face) with coworkers and managers.

Looking to the Future: The Next Remote Work and Isolation Study

This research team is now exploring these dynamics in more detail. Specifically, we are looking at how feelings of isolation experienced by remote workers impact their emotional well-being (e.g., loneliness, mood, sense of belonging) and how that later shapes their work-life (e.g., job satisfaction, burnout, turnover) and their family life (i.e., family satisfaction, marital burnout). Through surveying both the remote worker and the remote worker’s partner, we will better understand how remote work arrangements play a role in the work-life and family life of individuals that have this arrangement.  We will examine how remote work can be designed to be not only most effective for the person’s employer and career, but we will also try to inform organizations and policymakers on how to create supportive remote work situations. Finally, we hope to understand the role that remote work plays for the families of individuals engaging in these work arrangements, for both the person in the job and their partner.

Each couple will earn $25 Amazon gift card for completing the surveys.

If you are a remote worker and interested in participating in our study, please join RemotelyOne to receive the registration link.

Take Survey Now
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Remote Work Research Baylor University
Help us learn about people working remotely. Eligible participants will receive a $25 Amazon gift card.

Faculty Researchers 

Sara Jansen Perry, PhD, Assistant Professor, Baylor University, Hankamer School of Business, Department of Management

Sara Jansen Perry, PhD, Assistant Professor, Baylor University, Hankamer School of Business, Department of Management

Dawn Carlson, PhD, Professor, Baylor University, Hankamer School of Business, Department of Management

Dawn Carlson, PhD, Professor, Baylor University, Hankamer School of Business, Department of Management

Min (Maggie) Wan, PhD, Assistant Professor, Texas State University

Min (Maggie) Wan, PhD, Assistant Professor, Texas State University, McCoy College of Business, Department of Management

Merideth J. Thompson, PhD, Professor of Management, Utah State University

Merideth J. Thompson, PhD, Professor of Management, Utah State University, Huntsman School of Business, Department of Management

Originally Published by Sara Perry on Wednesday, January 29, 2020 - 15:54 | Updated On Friday, February 28, 2020 - 15:39

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