Home worker at their desk

Something, not somewhere, and increasingly somewhen

This is a co written post with Donna Lanclos

A podcast of me and Donna arguing discussing this post refereed hosted by James Clay is available over on James’ Blog

“Work is something you do, not somewhere you go!”

Obviously this is not true for many people – from chefs to hospital staff, work is somewhere you obviously go. But in a connected world, it doesn’t need to be true for everyone. Moreover, now, it is not just something and somewhere, but also somewhen.

In 2007 Jisc funded a project under its Institutional Innovation Programme to look at the implications of location independent working. The project was based at Coventry university where the institution had already piloted the approach within a department. As reported at the time in the Times Higher, the approach is credited with improving productivity and staff satisfaction while reducing stress and sickness absence. Mark Abrams, the project director, reported that a cost benefit analysis of the project demonstrated a saving to the university of £1271 per annum, and a saving to individual staff of £450 per annum. The efficacy of this is backed up in the UK Government’s own report where a review of available data was carried out. The report indicated in that where more flexible approaches to employment were adopted (flexi-time, working from home, reduced hours, job sharing and term-time working) there was an increase in productivity of staff, reduced absences and better retention of staff.

The Jisc Location Independent Working Project looked at the wider scale implementation, aligning the cultural change necessary at individual, departmental and institutional levels, deploying proven technologies to develop a resilient, workable and high quality scheme for staff.  When recently speaking to a new member of staff it became apparent that whilst the institutional memory of the project has disappeared, the lessons had not only been learned, they appear to be institutionally embedded and the approach is both popular and productive. A key output of the project was the simple Location Independent Working (LIW) Policy. The document sets down the expected benefits for both the organisation and the employee.

Benefits of LIW to the University

  • Provide employees with flexibility regarding their working hours and location
  • Reduce the occupancy of University premises
  • Improve employees’ work life balance and thereby reduce levels of absenteeism and stress
  • Reduce pressure on car parking facilities
  • Position the University as an ’employer of choice’

Benefits of LIW to employees

  • Improve work-life balance
  • Reduce commute time
  • Reduce travel costs
  • Remove unnecessary stress

The recognition that work does not just take place on the campus is more important now than ever before. Fixing an individual’s role to a place, in a culture where identity is becoming more important than role, can lead to loss of productivity in the individual, but from the institutions perspective it is also losing the opportunity to become greater than the boundaries of its official self.  Tying the work of individuals to a physical location ignores and blocks the benefits of being networked scholars and practitioners, of using the spaces of the web to facilitate and enhance their work, regardless of where they are physically.

Why isn’t location independent working more widespread in higher education contexts?  We wonder here the extent to which the suspicion of using digital places and tools to facilitate working presence is related to the generalized suspicion of screens and the conviction some people have that digital presence isn’t “genuine” or “real” enough.  The privileging of physical interactions at the expense of the potential for digital interactions to enhance or substitute for face-to-face meetings happens in classroom settings as well, with professors banning laptops, thinking that will make their students pay more attention.  This flies in the face of what we know about the rich potential of online interaction, the ways that people engage in important parts of their lives online as well as face to face.

The insistence that the only legitimate place for work to take place is within an office or a building results in a situation where it can be difficult to parse out where physical presence is actually necessary, because the working assumption is that  it is always necessary.  Doing the iterative exploration allows people to figure out when face to face meetings are crucial, or can be substituted for with emails, Skype or phone calls, texting exchanges, or even social media DMs.  People can become more connected and communicative when allowed a wider range of possibilities, rather than locking communication into tethered channels, and mistaking physical location for presence or attention.

In addition, the mandate of physical presence can lead to clock-in-clock-out 9 – 5 thinking, in professions where there are no time cards and where schedules do not adhere to consistent schedules day to day. When we see students learning in much more diverse ways, and requiring both spatially and temporally flexibility because of their own complex lives, we should be considering how can staff practices both model and complement their practice.   We should also consider the ways in which lack of flexibility can be a barrier to a diverse set of people being present in the workplace.  Insisting on a consistent physical presence can mean that the range of people who can fulfil that condition is going to be more narrow than if digital tools and places can be used to widen the pool of people doing the work.  Who don’t you get to work with if you tie your job to your building or office?  Who doesn’t get to work at all?  What connections and possibilities are missed?

A crucial prerequisite in allowing people to choose where to work (in situations, as we say, where the physical location isn’t a fundamental part of the work) is trust.  Trust that the work will be done, trust that the number of hours worked matters less than the task or agenda at hand.  In the absence of trust, physical presence can be treated as a proxy for work.   Eventually, the risk is that physical presence becomes a substitute for work, the equivalent of people treating “having a meeting” as the same thing as “getting things done.”

The implication of a management policy that requires physical presence on a regular schedule (when that is not dictated by the shape of the work that is required) is that productivity and effectiveness are directly linked to people’s inability to control their time or location.  It also assumes a kind of factory mentality around academic labor–that if people work more, in a particular pre-determined location, their work will be better.  Research, including the Jisc LIW project, shows this is not the case.  Increased flexibility and choice, afforded in part because of the potential of the Resident Web, can lead to more effective, more engaged, more satisfying work conditions.

A caveat to the flexibility argument:  we are not suggesting here that because people can work nearly anywhere and anywhen, that they should be working all the time.  Academic labour is fraught with issues of overwork, adjunctification, and power imbalances that make it difficult for those without structural power to exercise agency around when, how, and whether they work.  It is true that the Resident Web can be used to make people work more, and more often–that is not the argument here.  Rather, we are saying that allowing people to choose when and where they can get their most productive work done, regardless of location, should be the goal.  Sometimes physical location is crucial to the success of a task or project.  Often and increasingly, it is irrelevant.

For example, a distributed organisation like Jisc has largely adapted to the possibilities inherent in digital tools and places online as a way of driving work forward, in “sprints”. These processes are more productive, more cost-effective and result in more outputs than having physical meetings. The location independent working project at Coventry has also shifted the way people think about work; for example, the new member of staff we referred to earlier in this post was sat at a kitchen table at 6pm chatting about a report with her boss, who was on a plane returning from a conference whilst simultaneously playing “guess the train station” with a colleague waiting for a late train.

The web affords us new ways of working, new opportunities to connect.  It furthermore allows for a richer experience of work and life, rather than forcing us to segregate our time from ourselves via physical location, allowing us to choose when and where we are most productive, and how to conserve our face to face energy for those times that truly require it.

6 thoughts on “Something, not somewhere, and increasingly somewhen

  1. here here, I feel being tied to a desk, room , building depresses me beyond description. I’m a zombie, I feel more ignited when I change my environment, move around – sometimes I myself choose to go in a ‘cave’ spend four/five hours and I’m more productive than feeling chained to a desk to fulfill my ‘contracted’ 7.5 hours a day.
    We should accept that within realms and the task at hand there needs to be trust – if anything it make me sharper if I say so myself :]

  2. Would be nice, wouldn’t it? But everything I see tells me that work is no longer somewhen, it’s 24/7. And that’s unsustainable for much longer. At least somewhere constrains the somewhen – for those who don’t work from home – and for those that do it’s off to the local cafe, or “office” as it’s now known.

  3. I slipped into LIW the final step was the hardest going from being in the office once a week to roughly once a month. It was interesting to reflect on how just a little physical co-presence went a long way in making me feel connected to the team. I’m a couple of years in now and it’s easier but the technology is still a hard interface missing some of the soft nuances of human interaction. When I tell people I LIW usually the first question is it must be hard to motivate yourself each morning to start in reality (and perhaps related to my mild OCD) starting is fine … it’s stopping that’s the issue not helped by my mobile combining work and pleasure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *