Illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder
For many, teleworking is a normal occurrence. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of working adults spent at least some time working from home. With advancements in technology, cloud-based file sharing and storage and demands for more flexibility, it’s a trend unlikely to stop anytime soon.
Sandra Webster, DBA ’17, knows more than most about flexible work arrangements. First of all, she negotiated her first such job situation decades before it became a common practice, all the way back in 1981. She also recently completed a dissertation on the subject. Webster’s work explores the tools that make remote work possible and how Millennials and Baby Boomers—two very different generations—use them.
An alumna of the Fox School’s Executive Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) program, Webster became interested in studying flexible work arrangements because of the things it made possible in her own life. Early in her career, when she worked in marketing for American Express, she wanted to get her undergraduate degree but couldn’t afford to stop working to study. “I tried night classes, but that never worked. My job was demanding and I often worked until midnight,” she recalls.
Still, she continued asking how she could work and go to school at the same time when she spied a weekends-only degree program offered through Marymount College in Tarrytown, NY. “It was perfect. I just needed Fridays off.” Not only did Webster manage to obtain that flexibility for herself at a time when it was unheard of, but she also got a study commissioned internally that looked at flexible and remote work. The results were so impressive—the remote workers produced more, better quality results in fewer hours—that later in her career Webster worked on high-profile projects staffed exclusively by work-from-home employees.
Since Webster left American Express to run her own companies, she’s always offered employees Flexible Work Arrangements, and her current and past employees were her first sources when she began compiling data for her research for her DBA dissertation. She also tapped her larger professional network to circulate surveys that asked Baby Boomers and Millennials how they use technology tools when working remotely.
One of the things she found upends the way companies have long done business. It used to be standard that a company has a contract with a specific technology company to supply employees across the board with the same devices. “Those days are gone,” says Webster. “You can’t have Millennial employees working with client information on their personal Macbook, but if you give them a Dell laptop, that’s exactly what they’ll do.” Another difference that emerged between the generations is that Millennials like to do a wide variety of tasks on mobile, while Baby Boomers want to work on a laptop.
Her research suggests that for a happy and productive staff, one that adheres to best practices, companies need to give individuals the tools with which they are most comfortable. She suggests giving employees the freedom to conduct virtual meetings via Webex, Skype, GoToMeeting, Join.me or Facetime. “It costs more upfront, but you get more out of your investment when you give them the thing they’re used to and they can run with it,” says Webster.
Webster also conducted interviews as part of her research. She used NVivo software to analyze and draw conclusions from her largely text-based data.
Her research also suggests that not every employee benefits from a flexible work arrangement. Some workers struggle without the social interaction, structure and supervision offered by the traditional in-office arrangement. But, surprisingly, generation isn’t a reliable indicator of whether an employee is right for remote work. “It’s more a personality type,” says Webster.
Workers who are susceptible to the isolation and depression brought on by working at home see their productivity drop to near zero as they squander work hours on social media and other online distractions. According to Webster, those workers often self-select into traditional work environments over time.
Webster still believes that, for the right people, flexible work arrangements create opportunities and boost a business’s productivity and earnings. The learnings from her research shed light on how to set both companies and employees up for success.
Interested in learning more about the Fox School’s research on flexible work? Check out “Keeping Stress at Bay” which explores how telework can lead to higher levels of stress.