Technology and improved ease of communication are making it possible for an increasing number of people to work remotely. 

An occupational therapist, Mariaan Jacklin, said there are both advantages and disadvantages in working away from a central office and offered advice for maintaining work-life balance to avoid burnout. 

“There is little research available on remote work within the South African context. Despite the growing popularity of remote work, there remains a worldwide shortage of research available on the subject. There is a common perception that working remotely has positive effects for the worker. However, there is little evidence to support this view,” she said. 

“Ease of communication makes it possible to work from the other side of the world. However, this makes it challenging to differentiate when a work day starts and ends.
“There have been studies suggesting that traditional work instils structure to the day, which encourages routine and a clear distinction between work and home activities.”

According to Jacklin, without a clear distinction, there is an increased risk of falling into the “always-on” trap, where boundaries between work and personal life may become blurred to the point where the individual is unable to disengage completely from their work responsibilities. 

“This poses a challenge to the modern worker, where the work and the home environment are often one, as they are unable to ‘switch off’ from their work role to fully relax during leisure time,” she said.

Working remotely may also create inter-role conflict, where a worker is required to fulfil different roles at the same time. 
A number of positive aspects associated with the work environment, which give individuals a sense of connectedness and achievement, may also be difficult to replicate when working from home. 

“A 2015 study on the influence of technology on job satisfaction and collaboration found that work productivity and satisfaction depend on the meaningfulness of the work, autonomy with regard to work tasks and measurable outcomes, and meaningful social relationships at work. 

“While working remotely may tick some of these boxes, there are various factors that need to be considered to establish whether the recent trend towards working remotely could be beneficial to South African workers.”

Working remotely may provide the worker with a greater sense of independence and more flexibility can enhance those feelings, as well as create opportunities for exercise during traditional working hours. 

“Although improvement in autonomy is implied when working remotely, research suggests that the lack of proximity to supervisors and managers may actually lead to micromanagement and a breakdown of trust between the manager and the worker, as the manager is not aware of how the worker uses his or her time,” Jacklin added. 

While there is a popular belief that working remotely leads to a better work-life balance and prevents burnout, the opposite may also be true, particularly where flexibility in daily schedules could lead to either too little or too much time spent working, as well as inconsistent sleep and wake patterns.

In addition, the lack of structure in remote working may lead to longer working hours, with less home-work differentiation and an increased risk of burnout. As the worker functions more independently, there is less exposure to company group goals, values and motives. That may reduce the individual’s ability to experience meaning in their work. 

The most prevalent risk of remote work, according to Jacklin, is social isolation. “When working remotely, social interaction is limited to the primary group in the household or immediate community. It has been suggested that social interaction may be the key reason some people seek out employment, such as in the case of single people, stay-at-home mothers with grown children or someone who has recently lost a partner. For these individuals, the work environment provides varied opportunities for social interaction and connection.”

Working remotely, even with the benefit of communication via email, messages or phone calls may provide little scope for peer-group support, such as social contact with people from the same work environment for example. 

“Non-verbal communication cues, tone of voice and social subtleties are lost when communicating via electronic media, which may lead to miscommunication and depersonalisation,” she noted. 

“Anyone considering working remotely should assess whether they possess the necessary intrinsic motivation and self-reinforcement needed to maintain proper boundaries between work and home life, because a lack of differentiation between work and home may lead to role confusion and occupational imbalance.”

Things to consider before working remotely:

• Maintain a daily routine that includes no more than eight hours of work per day, six to eight hours of sleep and half an hour of exercise daily.
• Ensure that there is time in your schedule for home and childcare tasks, and meaningful social and leisure time pursuits, which should ideally not be work-related.
• Try to differentiate between work and home space. The home-based worker may find that working from coffee shops, libraries or collaborative “floating-desk” spaces may be more beneficial to their emotional wellness because it allows for community interaction.

Supplied by MNA on behalf of Akeso Milnerton.

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