When working remotely, homeworkers are provided with various technologies which may help them to avoid experiencing feelings of social isolation from colleagues. These include the mobile phone, which provides homeworkers with the means of engaging in interaction with colleagues irrespective of time and location. This paper aims to investigate how the mobile phone is used by homeworkers for social interaction purposes.
Data are collected from 25 respondents working in a telecommunications organisation using in‐depth, semi‐structured interviews.
Upon analysis, it emerges that a significant number of respondents use their mobile phone for retaining social interaction with colleagues outside of their designated work time and space. It also emerges that certain organisational factors help to explain why interaction is maintained in this way.
Implications for organisations employing homeworking are also presented, together with how the limitations of the paper can be overcome in future research.
The results challenge the common assertions concerning social isolation made within homeworking literature; these are discussed within the paper, which also addresses how the findings of this paper aim to aid, as well as to direct, theoretical progression within this area.
Lal, B. and Dwivedi, Y. (2009), "Homeworkers' usage of mobile phones; social isolation in the home‐workplace", Journal of Enterprise Information Management, Vol. 22 No. 3, pp. 257-274. https://doi.org/10.1108/17410390910949715Download as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Developments in society, industry and employee demands are said to be resulting in the increasing adoption of flexible working arrangements within organisations (Churchill and Munro, 2001). One such working arrangement is “homeworking” which involves individuals undertaking traditionally office‐based paid employment from home by means of information and communications technologies (ICTs) on a full‐ or part‐time basis (Harrington and Ruppel, 1999). When working from home, individuals are separated from their traditional work environment and colleagues and, to some extent, their social environment (Crandall and Gao, 2005). As a result of this remote style of working, homeworkers are presented with fewer opportunities to engage in face‐to‐face social interaction with colleagues (Harris, 2003). In effect, the day‐to‐day socialisation and relationship‐building communication that was possible in the traditional office space can be lost, resulting in the individual experiencing feelings of social isolation from colleagues (Gainey et al., 1999; Workman et al., 2003).
Although opportunities for engaging in social interaction on a face‐to‐face basis become fewer when working from home, homeworkers are nevertheless provided with the technological means for sustaining communication with colleagues (Salazar, 2001). Various ICTs are available for homeworkers for this purpose (Duxbury and Neufeld, 1999), which have evolved from the fixed personal computer, landline telephone and early computing systems which provided individuals with fixed, asynchronous communication (Venkatesh and Johnson, 2002; Perez et al., 2005). Recently, homeworkers are presented with mobile devices such as mobile phones which not only enable synchronous communication, but also due to their wireless and portable nature, also enable such communication to occur at potentially “anytime, anywhere” (Palen et al., 2000). Thus, homeworkers are equipped with the technological capability of interacting with colleagues regardless of where they are and what time it is. This not only allows homeworkers to remain connected outside of the time and physical space that they allocate for work activity, but also the ability for homeworkers to transform their communication patterns with colleagues.
Despite this potential, it is not clear from the literature whether and how homeworkers use their mobile phone to interact with colleagues for social interaction. In light of the above, this paper aims to investigate:
This research will therefore assume an exploratory approach, which will entail collecting first‐hand data from homeworkers' personal experiences in order to illustrate and understand homeworker behaviour. In order to achieve the research aim, the paper is structured as follows: the following section provides the theoretical background to the issue of social interaction and isolation within homeworking. The aim is to demonstrate where this study fits in with existing literature and how it aims to build upon this knowledge. This is progressed by the research methodology which identifies how the data for this study were collected and analysed. This is followed by an overview of the results, which highlights the main findings of the study, before being proceeded by the discussion, which aims to identify how the findings of this study relate to the literature. The paper ends with a conclusion of the study, which also details the limitations of this research and directions for future research.
[…] if the mobile phone is used by homeworkers as a means of retaining social interaction with colleagues and, if so, to provide illustrations of how the device can be used for this purpose.
2 Theoretical background
2.1 The importance of face‐to‐face interaction for workers
The need to associate with and identify with others through long‐term, positive relationships is recognised as a fundamental motivation in all humans (Buss, 1991). In order to satisfy this need, it is understood that individuals must interact frequently with the same people, and that this interaction must occur in a relatively stable environment (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). When working from home, although individuals do have the ability to interact with colleagues using technology, the ability to interact in a stable environment which allows face‐to‐face communication is challenged. Related to Buss (1991) and Baumeister and Leary (1995), homeworkers' ability to associate, identify and maintain positive relationships with colleagues might also be challenged. As well as being regarded as critical for enabling communication and creating camaraderie between employees, face‐to‐face social interaction also supports interpersonal networking via informal means such as office gossip and allows individuals to share work‐related information. Thus, in‐person social interaction can facilitate the distribution of information both directly and indirectly related to work (Cooper and Kurland, 2002). This sharing of information and association with colleagues and the company, in turn, enables employees to create identification with the company (Davenport and Pearlson, 1998).
The importance of face‐to‐face interaction for such information exchange can be regarded as being particularly significant within homeworking, when compared to other styles of flexible working such as mobile working and hotdesking. While these flexible options afford face‐to‐face interaction with colleagues and clients which enables individuals to develop and maintain social interaction and relationships with others, homeworking entails less‐frequent in‐person interaction, since the home is regarded as individuals' main site for work (Davenport and Pearlson, 1998). As a result, it is explicable as to why homeworking can be considered to be more likely to induce stronger feelings of social isolation when compared to mobile working and hotdesking (Kurland and Egan, 1999; Kurland and Cooper, 2002), and why homeworkers may have a greater reliance upon ICTs for communication purposes than those engaged in alternate work arrangements.
2.2 The implications of a lack of face‐to‐face interaction when working from home
When informal face‐to‐face interaction becomes irregular, the implications for homeworkers are generally depicted as being negative, which can lead to a variety of unfavourable implications for the individual (Igbaria and Guimares, 1999). It is suggested that when working remotely, the distribution of information amongst workers results in homeworkers feeling “out of the loop” (Bussing, 1998), with homeworkers missing out on informal, interactive learning concerning the latest developments within their company (Harris, 2003). Furthermore, the quality of the relationships between homeworkers and their colleagues deteriorates (Igbaria and Guimares, 1999; Manoochehri and Pinkerton, 2003), resulting in hindrances in the communication and cohesion amongst workers and homeworkers feeling like outsiders when visiting the traditional office space (Bussing, 1998). In the long‐term, as face‐to‐face interaction becomes less frequent, the implications become deeper, with homeworkers feeling disconnected from both their jobs and co‐workers (Davenport and Pearlson, 1998) and invisible at the workplace (Bailey and Kurland, 2002). Concurrently, this can result in a reduction in their commitment towards their job (Workman et al., 2003); feelings of anxiety and depression (Gainey et al., 1999); feelings of being left out from decision‐making processes (Duxbury and Neufeld, 1999); a decline in team synergy and trust and, ultimately, their productivity (Kurland and Egan, 1999; Kurland and Cooper, 2002; Neufeld and Fang, 2005).
2.3 The mobile phone as a rich communications medium
Considering the negative implications associated with a lack of face‐to‐face interaction above, the relevance of having a “rich” medium of communication becomes evermore significant. A medium is regarded as being rich if it enables immediate feedback, uses visual and audio channels, has a personal source and uses natural language communication. Face‐to‐face communication is considered to be the richest form of interaction (Daft and Lengel, 1986). It is recognised that electronic communication creates feelings of solitude and ambiguity (Workman et al., 2003); however, different media can provide different levels of richness in order to reduce such feelings (Daft and Lengel, 1984, 1986). Of the technological media available, the telephone is regarded as a rich medium above others, such as e‐mail (Daft and Lengel, 1984, 1986), since telephones enable immediate feedback and natural language audio communication. In line with Workman et al. (2003), this suggests that by generating a feeling of greater social presence compared to other technological media, the telephone can be considered to be one of the most effective means of communication for reducing homeworkers' feelings of solitude.
The evolution of the telephone from its fixed, land line form to its mobile form has opened up new opportunities for interaction for its users in terms of how, where and when interaction can take place. In terms of how mobile phones can change interaction, they present homeworkers with existing as well as new opportunities for interaction: as well as fulfilling the basic functions similar to the land‐line telephone (Lacohee et al., 2003), mobile phones provide additional features such as access to the internet and short messaging service – SMS (Leung and Wei, 2000). Homeworkers are subsequently able to choose the medium through which they want to communicate with colleagues: individuals can choose whether they want to communicate using a rich, synchronous media which enables quick feedback (phone calls) or a less‐rich asynchronous media where there can be a lag in feedback (SMS, Kakihara and Sorensen, 2001; Cousins and Robey, 2005). Interaction can therefore take an audio or textual format, depending on the individual's selection.
In terms of where and when interaction can take place, the mobile and portable nature of the mobile phone means that they can overcome the mobility barriers of the conventional land‐based fixed telephone (Leung and Wei, 2000). This, in effect, means that communication via the mobile phone can take place in different forms at potentially anywhere and at anytime (Arnold, 2003; Desrochers and Sargent, 2003). The ability to do so can potentially change the relationship between the homeworker and their colleagues; whereas before in the traditional workplace individuals could engage in ad hoc face‐to‐face social interaction within specific time and space constraints, homeworkers are now able to interact socially using a device which not only crosses such constraints, but also affords synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication. Despite this potential, the issue of how the mobile phone can be used in this way for maintaining social interaction has not, as yet, become a key consideration for research.
From the broader homeworking literature, it has emerged that the number of studies examining the issue of social isolation within homeworking in general are limited: the issue of social isolation within homeworking tends to be discussed broadly and in little detail within literature addressing the wider advantages and disadvantages of remote working (Harpaz, 2002; Manoochehri and Pinkerton, 2003; Crandall and Gao, 2005). Such studies are often deficient in one of two ways: they either rely upon secondary data or are of an anecdotal nature and consequently not supported by actual first‐hand accounts by homeworkers, which consequently makes the assertions made more speculative than accurate. Furthermore, although there are several disadvantages associated with the issue of social isolation when working from home, little research has explored the nature of employees' concerns about social isolation (Kurland and Cooper, 2002). Taking these two exiting shortcomings into consideration, research focus has yet to examine how homeworkers can actually tackle these feelings of social isolation. In particular, the issue of how homeworkers can address this issue using the media‐rich mobile phone, which provides a flexible means of communication which can enable homeworkers to remain responsive to colleagues at potentially anytime and anywhere, remains unexplored. By investigating this issue, new insights can be gained based upon homeworkers' actual experiences, which look beyond simply reasserting existing arguments within literature and, instead, provide new insights that can assist in the theoretical progression within this area.
3 Research method
Data for this study were collected from 25 homeworkers working in a large UK‐based global telecommunications organisation. The principal activities of the organisation, referred to in this study by the pseudonym “Company Y”, include local, national and international telecommunications services, internet products and services and information technology solutions. It was one of the first organisations in the UK to employ homeworking and entered into flexible working in 1992. Approximately, 9,500 of its (approximate) 100,000 employees are contractually employed to work primarily from home recently. Focusing the investigation upon one organisation meant that an understanding of both the individual homeworkers' perspectives and the organisational context in which they work – the social system in which the homeworkers exist (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Considering multiple explanations and variables within one organisational setting also enables more assured generalisations to be made about homeworkers within one case study (de Vaus, 2001).
Data were collected from the respondents using semi‐structured interviews, allowing information to be gathered about what the respondents think about their worlds, what is occurring in their worlds and why they do what they do: information can therefore be sought about the facts of a matter as well as individuals' opinions about events (Yin, 2003). The detailed information generated by the interviews was put together to form explanations grounded in the interview details and evidence (Easterby‐Smith et al., 2002). Interviews lasted between 45 and 90 minutes.
In‐depth interviews with a semi‐structured format were selected for a number of reasons. First, as well as providing the interviews with a level of instrumentation – with the interviewer asking specific questions as opposed to employing an open‐ended approach with no pre‐set questions – semi‐structured interviews also take into account that different things mean different things to people, so the interview questions can be adapted for different participants rather than using a structured instrument in all interviews (Rubin and Rubin, 1995). In effect, this allowed each respondent to elaborate upon issues they deemed as being important (May, 2001). This is complementary to the exploratory nature of this study since it allows the interviewer to remain receptive to emerging explanations/patterns as well as allowing the interviewer to ask direct questions based on the explanations identified in previous interviews (Glaser and Strauss, 1968).
3.1 Interview conduct and questions
In terms of the standard questions that could be asked of all respondents, these included whether they had colleagues with whom they interacted socially, whether the mobile phone was used for this purpose and, if so, when (in terms of time) and where (in terms of space) such interaction occurred. In terms of the non‐standard questions, an example includes asking respondents who stated they were available for social interaction “all the time”: “Could you explain what you mean by ‘all the time’?” and “Does ‘all the time’ include non‐work hours?” The responses that the respondents provided consequently guided the next question.
Interviews were carried out face‐to‐face so to enable the interviewee and interviewer to become familiar with one another and to “put a face to a name” (Rubin and Rubin, 1995), with the aim of encouraging respondents to be more willing to share information concerning their mobile usage behaviour. Where interviews could not be conducted face‐to‐face – which was the case with five out of the 25 respondents – these were conducted via a fixed land line telephone. This ensured that respondents who could not meet in person were not excluded. About 18 of the interviews were conducted in separate spaces within the company's sites, which were based in various locations in the UK, and two were conducted in quiet sections in coffee shops near to one of the company's sites. The sample was generated using snowball sampling, which involved starting‐off with five initial interviewees who provided details of other potential respondents. Potential respondents were then contacted and provided with the option of participating. In order to encourage participation, a monetary incentive was offered, where the names of all the respondents partaking in the study were put into a prize draw from which one name would be selected.
3.2 Data analysis
Each interview was recorded using a Dictaphone and fully transcribed before the next interview was conducted. This meant that if an interviewer raised a previously unmentioned issue, additional interview questions could be formulated accordingly to ask future respondents in order to delve into the issue further.
The transcription process yielded a large amount of textual data which were analysed using coding using the three stages of coding as suggested by Miles and Huberman (1994): descriptive, explanatory and inferential coding. The initial stage of coding involved the allocation of descriptive codes to the data in order to identify key characteristics of homeworkers. In this case, descriptive codes were used to identify demographic information about respondents, such as age, gender, job type, length of time spent homeworking and number of days they worked from home per week. For example, in order to indicate the age group to which respondents belonged, participants were allocated the label “21‐30/31‐40” and so forth. The next stage of coding, explanatory coding, involved initial interpretation of the interview data and identifying whether homeworkers used their mobile phones for social interaction with colleagues, and in situations where they did, how they used their device for this purpose in terms of time and space. For example, if it emerged that a respondent remained responsive to work colleagues via their mobile phone for 24 hours, seven days a week, this behaviour would be coded as “24/7”. This code was subsequently allocated to excerpts of all the interview transcripts that illustrated this to be the case.
Following the first two stages of coding, a network diagram was produced for each respondent. This involved mapping out in a visual form all the codes that were allocated to the respondent, such as their descriptive codes providing details about their demographics and interpretive codes which specified how the mobile phone was used for social interaction. Once this had been done for each respondent, the diagrams were cross‐checked with one another. This enabled the identification and illustration of any dominant patterns/themes that appeared to be present in each case. For example, if it appeared to be the case that individuals who had been working from home for many years used the mobile phone for social interaction more often than individuals who had been homeworking for less time, then “length of time spent homeworking” could be labelled as a potential pattern. This pattern would then be cross‐checked with data from the other interviews to test its validity.
All the codes for each of the respondents were then organised and put together into a spreadsheet‐like matrix: there were individual columns for the individuals' demographic information such as age and gender, as well as columns for the descriptive, interpretive and pattern codes, so that the appropriate codes associated with each case could be inputted. With all the data available in coded form, this enabled the data provided by each respondent to be viewed in a concise format, rather than having to deal with numerous paragraphs of text.
All the codes were available in one computerised mega matrix. From this matrix, smaller matrices could be created which enabled further cross‐checking and pattern checking amongst the respondents. For example, smaller matrices could be created according to age to investigate whether a relationship between age and mobile phone usage existed. This involved listing all the participants in descending age category order to identify whether age had a direct effect, or whether age had an affect only in certain conditions, for example, whether respondents belonging to a particular age category and of a particular gender displayed particular behaviour. Having the data displayed in coded form on one matrix also meant that any differences or similarities between those who did or did not use their mobile phone for social interaction could also be examined. Furthermore, it enabled it easier to cross‐check between respondents to see what codes and patterns were dominant in order to determine whether the initial patterns identified using the network diagrams were consistent.
Employees in Company Y worked in a temporary team working environment. This means that work was project‐based, where individuals would be assigned to a project team for a length of time which varied from anything from one month to five years. Upon project completion, individuals would be reassigned to other project(s) requiring their skill set. Owing to the size of the organisation and the number of employees within it, it was rare for respondents to work with the same project/team members on more than one occasion. Furthermore, team members were geographically dispersed across the UK, which meant that teams relied heavily upon technology for communication purposes. In addition, employees had witnessed much change over the past few years and further change was predicted for the future. For example, job cuts and reshuffling was quite rife within the company: there had been a reduction from approximately 250,000 to just fewer than 100,000 employees within the company over the past few years. To further reduce costs, the company shut down some of its sites – including those in prime locations in key cities – in order to decrease its real estate and overhead expenses.
In terms of demographics, 18 out of the 25 respondents were male and seven female. The age of respondents varied, with one respondent aged between 21 and 30 years; eight between 31 and 40 years; nine between 41 and 50 years and seven between 51 and 60 years. Job functions ranged from sales and marketing and finance to systems/software development and project management.
All 25 respondents were equipped with a mobile phone by the company, 18 of whom used it for social interaction with colleagues. When working remotely, although the number of days that respondents worked from home per week varied from between two and five days, a significant number (21 out of 25 respondents) worked from home for the majority of the working week (between three and five days), as depicted by Table I.
For those respondents who worked away from home on one or more days per week (13 out of 25), such days were spent either travelling to one of the company's sites or visiting external client organisations, thus facilitating the provision of face‐to‐face communication. However, regardless of how many days a respondent spent working from home or from shared office sites per week, this did not influence their inclination to remain connected to their mobile phones for social interaction purposes. The seven respondents who did not use their mobile phone for this purpose worked from home five days a week. As well as providing illustrations of how the mobile phone was used, further details about those respondents who did not use their mobile phone for social interaction are also incorporated within this section.
Four main findings were deduced from the interview data:
On the whole, working from home resulted in less in‐person interaction with colleagues.Face‐to‐face meetings with colleagues or managers declined when homeworking, often occurring monthly or even quarterly. For example, one respondent stated:
In terms of if I'm down in London I'll try and meet up with BB, Ryan [members of his current project team] and whoever else and vice versa if they're in Manchester or Leeds. But we have [pause] fortnightly audios, so we go on a call together, and we have quarterly face‐to‐face meetings. But that, that is generally it (respondent no. 22, male).
Another respondent highlighted the infrequency of in‐person meetings, despite having worked with other team members for some time:
I'm working on a big deal at the moment with colleagues who I met this morning before they went into another meeting […] the guys I met this morning have been working on it for 6 weeks now, first time I met them today [pause] face‐to‐face (respondent no. 5, male).
For those whose jobs did not entail client interaction, opportunities to meet face‐to‐face with colleagues were further reduced. This, in effect, appeared to challenge the notion of working as a “team”:
We all work individually on things […] We only come together as a team under the Line Manager. We formed as 4 people who share a common job, and we don't work as a team to a greater or lesser degree. We tend to share ideas with each other, we don't work together (respondent no. 5, male).
Working from home resulted in less in‐person social interaction.Despite differences in behaviour, all respondents agreed that social interaction on a face‐to‐face basis declined when homeworking. For example, one respondent stated this difference:
With the social side [in the traditional work place], you know you go for a coffee, you have a wee chat and you come back with your coffee. I'm into the kitchen, boil it and I'm back to the desk [laughs, I laugh] and if I run out of coffee I run down to Morrison's [laughs] so I mean the cross‐over's quite interesting (respondent no. 14, male).
Respondents also agreed that working remotely required changes in communication. For example, one respondent stated:
Because your team are not sitting with you in one office, although I don't think you can ever beat face‐to‐face [pause] I suppose you have to substitute that face‐to‐face interaction with either by a call or a text or an email [thinks, long pause] (respondent no. 6, male).
Mobile phone usage resulted in work‐home integration.Although respondents tried to keep work and home activities distinct by allocating office‐type fixed hours (for example, between 08.30/9.00 until 17.30/18.00, Monday to Friday) and a specific space within the home for work activity (for example, a separate study or a spare bedroom), 18 of the 25 respondents did nevertheless take their work mobile into the domestic home space during non‐work time for retaining contactability with colleagues. For example, one respondent stated how this was done, and also how he would also re‐direct calls from his work land line telephone to his mobile phone outside of working hours:
I take it with me so at the end of the day […] end of my office day, I would route the calls back to my mobile phone and bring that back over to the house (respondent no. 17, male).
Including respondent 17 above, of the 18 respondents who did use their mobile phones for social interaction, 12 respondents had their mobile phones switched on and placed by their land line telephone during work hours; whereas six respondents had their mobile phone switched off and also placed on their desk by their land line telephone during work hours. The latter would then switch their mobile phones on after work hours and would keep them either on their person or at a place in the domestic area where they would remain audible. This place equated to areas such as the kitchen or at the bottom of the stairs.
Three main types of information were exchanged via the mobile phone.When engaging in social interaction with colleagues via the mobile phone, respondents shared three main types of information: general gossip about other colleagues, information about the developments and changes within the company, and advice on how certain work tasks could be completed (which involved consulting others with particular expertise). In terms of how such information was exchanged, homeworkers could choose whether they wanted to use synchronous and/or asynchronous modes of communication enabled by the mobile, corresponding to phone calls and SMS, respectively. Respondents used a mixture of the two methods of communication although they did state that at times, especially during the evenings and weekends, they would opt to send a SMS rather than make a phone call because the former was regarded as being as less intrusive. For example, one respondent stated:
I use text message quite a lot [pause] because that's not intrusive [pause] you can ask somebody a question via text message [pause] and even if they're in a busy they can see it's you, you know [pause] just give you a quick reply back (respondent no. 12, male).
4.1 Developing networks of close colleagues
A total of 23 of the respondents had built up a small network of colleagues who were now regarded as friends. Although they did not necessarily work with them any longer on projects, this network of colleagues constituted the homeworker's “permanent” team of contacts, with whom they could exchange information concerning developments within the company (which was difficult to do otherwise due to the size of the company), as well as share information about other workers and general gossip. This permanent team consisted of select colleagues with whom homeworkers had built up rapport over time; as one respondent stated, he maintained a “little black book” of contacts (respondent no. 7, male). In order to share such information with one another, it emerged that respondents often extended their contactability to such colleagues/friends outside of work time and space via their mobile phone. One respondent explained who his network was comprised of and who it did not contain, which consisted of both colleagues he directly worked with and internal clients who also worked in the same company:
The network of contacts also appeared to prove useful when individuals needed assistance with some work task. One respondent highlighted how the networks worked in conjunction with one another:
I've been in the same area for three or so years [pause] and I've built up a working relationship with what used to be my customer area, which is typical for me, I'll totally ignore my own Management because they're not doing things day to day with me [pause] So, at the moment I've kind of built up if you like, quite a cosy relationship with both the customer area who are driving the requirements and a set of technical people working in the different areas that the systems area that I work on (respondent no. 1, male).
This appeared to be the case even when individuals had worked for the company for many years. As well as being able to consult members of their network concerning a work task and company developments, it emerged that respondent used this interaction to integrate social banter. For example, one respondent stated:
It's your network that gets you through, the network you build on [pause] If I can't think what to do [pause] my manager will ring around and someone can suggest something [pause] and that's his network and then my network extends to other areas (respondent no. 21, male).
In the cases of the respondents who did not use their mobile phone for social interaction, two of the seven who did not use their mobile phones for social interaction with colleagues had not formed such a network of contacts. For example, one of the two respondents had not been to a Company Y site for approximately 14 months and stated how working in a remote environment made it more difficult for social relationships to develop:
What I find is that if you phone somebody up, return their phone call, ask them a question, whatever […] you tend to have a few minutes just about stuff in general rather than be very specific about the work you need to talk about. So there's a little bit of social interaction there, especially if they're a homeworker as well, you know they're probably sitting in their office as well with nobody else to talk to [laughs] so erm [pause] that [respondent's emphasis] helps (respondent no. 12, male).
Another respondent who had not formed a network of contacts appreciated the fact that in‐person interaction declined when homeworking since this was not an aspect of work life that he appeared to enjoy:
Well one, the guy that [inaudible murmuring, pause] the last project fizzled out and ended up with just two of us working on it and the guy that I stayed with til the end I got to know really well and yeah I would consider him to be a friend. I have a chance to see him a couple of times since I finished the last project. Erm [pause] but nooo, other than that, no none [friends] really. I mean I used to have several being in the office but now I'm on my own most of the time. That's gone, which is a bit of a shame, but […] [trails off] (respondent no. 4, male).
The remaining five respondents who did not use their mobile phone for social interaction stated that they wanted to maintain a distinction between work and home such that any work‐related activity did not cross into domestic time or space. One of these five respondents stated his large number responsibilities as a single parent to two children meant that such a distinction was essential for his circumstances. However, in four of these five cases, contact was not maintained via the mobile phone, they did nevertheless give their personal home telephone number to their close network of colleagues on which they contacted outside of work hours.
I just didn't like offices [pause] I enjoy the ability to close the door and just concentrate without having to interact socially with people when I don't want to (respondent no. 13, male).
4.2 Other insights
The internal changes within the company resulted in respondents generally feeling uneasy. One respondent stated how there was an atmosphere of uncertainty of what was going to happen next to them and the company as a whole:
Another respondent said about the changes:
I mean I've not known as many people as I've known recently be fed up before as they've been for the last few months. There are groups who have suddenly lost three people [pause] erm [pause] and it is sort of [pause] I dunno I mean most people adapt to a way of being quite depressed about it or erm [pause] turning around and saying “stuff them, they're not getting me” which tends to be my view (respondent no. 18, male).
As a result of such changes, respondents' opinions and attitudes towards the company appeared to have become affected negatively. However, despite this, respondents appeared to maintain their pride in doing a successful job and an element of this was to remain responsive to their close network of colleagues.
We're being reorganised yet again the rumour is, so [pause] I think the one thing you'll find in this company is that people are so used to being changed now it is [respondent's emphasis] a bit discouraging sometimes. Erm [pause] I mean [pause] I was working out that if [respondent's emphasis] we are reorganised in a few weeks time, as I suspect we may, that will be my 15th different unit code in about two‐and‐a‐half years, you know [pause] it just keeps changing all the time (respondent no. 20, male).
Other less‐generalisable patterns also emerged. For example, it appeared that when working remotely, homeworkers sought alternative forms of social interaction which was not acquired via communication with colleagues. One respondent stated how she used her family for social interaction:
Furthermore, working in a remote environment did not necessarily equate to becoming socially isolated. For example, one respondent stated how:
I'm a very social person […] so when husband and kids come home I can't stop talking and they've had all that for the whole day and now they just want to wind (respondent no. 23, female).
In addition, factors such as gender, age, marital status, job type and length of time (in total years) spent homeworking, number of days spent homeworking did not appear to determine who would or would not enact particular behaviour. For example, those within particular job types or of a certain age were not inclined to be less or more likely to use their mobile phone for social interaction with colleagues.
It's strange actually in some ways I probably know them [colleagues] more socially than somebody that in other jobs I'd been sitting next to for two years so erm, I think because we all work remotely perhaps we make more effort (respondent no. 2, male).
When working from home, face‐to‐face interaction decreased in both the formal sense, such as meeting with colleagues and managers for work purposes, as well as in the informal sense, that is for exchanging information not directly related to work with close colleagues. For a large number of respondents, especially for those working at home five days a week, face‐to‐face interaction with colleagues was substantially reduced compared to conventional office‐based working. The distributed and remote nature of their work organisation, together with the temporary nature of team work and team members, consequently resulted in fewer opportunities for in‐person interaction, which meant that homeworkers' ability to develop social relationships beyond purely working relationships and to engage in informal interaction was reduced. In addition, for those whose jobs had little or no client interaction, in‐person interaction and relationship building was less likely. Thus, in line with Harris (2003), the results indicate that homeworkers are presented with fewer opportunities to engage in face‐to‐face social interaction with colleagues when working from home.
In the absence of face‐to‐face interaction, respondents highlighted that changes had to be made in their patterns of communication. This involved a significant number of homeworkers using their work provided mobile phones in order to engage in social interaction with colleagues. In total, 18 out of the 25 respondents used their mobile phone for this purpose, specifically for exchanging information about other colleagues, developments and changes within the company, as well as for information regarding how to complete work tasks. Interaction as such was not maintained with all colleagues; rather, it was used as a medium for developing and maintaining social relationships with colleagues who comprised their small network of close associates, which they had built up during their working life with the company. In line with Daft and Lengel (1984), it appears that the mobile phone, a rich medium of communication that offers immediate (as well as asynchronous) feedback, audio cues and the use of natural voice communication, can help homeworkers to overcome feelings of solitude and ambiguity. The findings expand on this idea by illustrating how the mobile phone is actually used by homeworkers to achieve this. Furthermore, following on from Buss (1991), this preservation of their social network indicates that individuals have a need to identify with others through long‐term positive relationships with colleagues, regardless of whether work is physically being conducted in a central workplace or within the home.
The uncertain nature of changes in the company, job losses, feelings of employee demotivation and frequent job role reorganisation placed greater emphasis on the network. In fact, in order to maintain their relationships with colleagues, homeworkers exerted additional efforts: despite an apparent desire for segmentation between the work and home domains, homeworkers allowed the two to become integrated by remaining responsive to their network of colleagues.
5.1 Challenging existing assertions about social isolation
Previously in the homeworking literature, the implications of social isolation were discussed and attention was not given to how homeworkers were able to tackle this issue. The results specify that homeworkers are not passive bystanders when experiencing feelings of social isolation, which tends to be the impression derived from existing literature. Contrary to this, the results illustrate that homeworkers are able to take proactive steps to overcome such feelings by utilising their technological affordance of the mobile phone in order to remain contactable to their colleague network. By highlighting homeworkers' ability to overcome social isolation, further questions arise concerning the applicability of existing assertions, which are based largely upon secondary data or upon information of an anecdotal nature. For instance, the findings challenge the list of negative implications associated with social interaction when working from home. For example, Bussing (1998) and Harris (2003) stress that when in‐person interaction declines, this results in homeworkers feeling “out of the loop” and missing out on informal, interactive learning concerning the latest developments within their company. However, contrary to this, it is indicated here that homeworkers were able to remain in the loop by being able to sustain their social interaction with colleagues and exchange details about the latest changes and developments within the company via their mobile phones. In addition, Igbaria and Guimares (1999) and Manoochehri and Pinkerton (2003) suggest that the quality of the relationships between homeworkers and their colleagues deteriorates as a result of less face‐to‐face interaction. However, the respondents in this study maintained informal interaction with their close network of colleagues, with whom they had been acquainted with for several years, which suggests that relationship deterioration was not a critical reality. In this way, respondents could be said to be maintaining their visibility and association with their network.
Maintaining such a connection with colleagues did not mean individuals remained contactable anytime or anywhere, since the benefit of technologies such as the mobile phone meant that they could be switched off. Also, individuals were able to plan and control their mode of communication via the mobile phone, with the option of sending a text message, making a call or even emailing in order to avoid intrusiveness to the recipient. Nevertheless, having to think about the mode of communication to be used also emphasises the difficulty in recreating the natural distractions and interactions that would have inherent and more ad hoc in the workplace. Thus, homeworkers may be making themselves more prone to interruptions via the mobile phone during non‐work time and space because they may actually be perceived as welcome as opposed to unwelcome interruptions.
It also emerged that, in fact, socially interacting with colleagues was not imperative to all employees, which made homeworking a welcome escape from such activity. The fact that some respondents favoured the decline in the ability to create and sustain in‐person relationships also highlights that being socially detached from colleagues can also be a welcome change to traditionally office‐based work. This, in turn, suggests that there as well as a negative side to social isolation, there can also be positive repercussions, which previously has not been examined in the literature examining social isolation within homeworking. In addition, the role of the family in providing such interaction suggests that the social responsibility of the workplace is being reallocated from colleagues to family members. This too is an emerging issue which, with further investigation, can help to examine the responsibilities of the organisation and the requirements from employees as more companies look towards adopting flexible styles of working.
It is widely accepted within the homeworking literature that when working from home, the reduction in face‐to‐face interaction also results in a decline in social interaction between homeworkers and their colleagues. Subsequently, this is said to result in various negative implications, such as a reduction in the quality of relationships with colleagues. The findings of this study challenge this largely pessimistic view of social isolation within homeworking literature, by demonstrating that although a reduction in in‐person interaction does result in fewer opportunities for homeworkers to engage in face‐to‐face social interaction, homeworkers are able to take actions in order to avoid the associated negative outcomes. By utilising their work provided mobile phone, the findings illustrate that the majority of homeworkers in this study used this technology in order to retain close relationships with networks of colleagues.
As well as providing a flexible means of remaining connected, the mobile phone also resulted in changes in patterns of communication for homeworkers: although during the working day most of the homeworkers used mainly the land line telephone for interaction and had the mobile phone switched off, outside of work time and space (evenings and weekends) homeworkers remained contactable to colleagues, which consequently resulted in the mobile phone entering the private home sphere. Thus, it appears that homeworkers in fact extended their working day in order to be able to engage in social interaction with close colleagues and to exchange both work‐ and non‐work related information, which may not have been necessary in the traditional workplace where interaction could be more spontaneous and therefore not need to be designated to a particular time of the day.
Understanding the organisational context in which respondents worked assisted in explaining why and with whom, they engaged in social interaction. Factors such as the nature of team working, the lack of a notion of working as a “team”, the size of the company and internal changes and developments within the company helped to explain why respondents remained responsive via their mobile phones to their close network of colleagues: this network appeared to be provide homeworkers with a critical source of information when working remotely. However, as stated in the literature and emphasised by the respondents, there is no substitute for face‐to‐face interaction, even though mobile phones provide a rich medium of communication through audio channels, have a personal source and use natural language communication. This is an important consideration for managers of any homeworkers as well as within Company Y itself; although homeworkers are able to take responsive action to avoid feeling socially isolated, managers must ensure frequent face‐to‐face meetings and opportunities for interaction between homeworkers and colleagues for both formal and informal information sharing and development, whether this be in the provision of hotdesking, more emphasis on meeting in person, or more social gatherings for all employees. It is understandable that in an environment in which competition is high and pressures to reduce costs are increasing, that organisations who employ alternate work styles do not simply “forget” their less visible workforce and perceive them purely as a means to an end.
For individuals working from home, the concepts of “organisation”, “teamworking” and “colleagues” change. Thus, their whole experience of “work” changes. In order to retain the notion of belonging and working within a team as part of a wider organisation, as well as the employer‐employee relationship, the issues faced by homeworkers need to addressed. The benefits and drawbacks of homeworking for both the organisation and employees are clear and oft‐cited in literature. Having developed and experienced this initial understanding, organisations and managers must now act upon such realisations in order to make the benefits long‐term, as opposed to simply leaving homeworkers to self‐manage themselves and develop their own coping strategies. For instance, it could prove beneficial for managers to promote the close network of colleagues that homeworkers have. This would mean that for new recruits who are looking to join homeworking they are first made to work from traditional offices so they can form such a network before working remotely and therefore avoid feelings of loneliness. Also, homeworkers could be encouraged to meet more regularly with close colleagues at an office site which is not done at present but which can strengthen both interpersonal relationships via visual cues and association with the company by being physically present at the workplace. Encouragement as such can prove beneficial, otherwise homeworkers can lose the enthusiasm to build working relationships. To enhance the feeling of working as a team, team leaders/project managers can ensure that, where possible, the first two meetings of a new team are conducted face‐to‐face in order for members to gain familiarity with who they are working. Teams can also be encouraged to conduct weekly conference calls or individual calls with members in order to get further interaction. Managers may argue that for many years homeworkers have continued to work from home facing the same situation and issues as present day homeworkers, so why does anything need to be done now. In such an instance, managers will need to think more strategically: will the younger generation of employees accept such a way of working with its associated limitations especially since the notion of a “career for life”, as highlighted by this study, is becoming eroded.
6.2 Limitations and future directions for research
Taking into consideration that the area of social isolation within homeworking is an area that is limited in terms of empirically documenting homeworkers' actual experiences, this study provides an alternative perspective to existing knowledge. The findings, in turn, suggest future avenues for research. Before discussing these future possibilities, it is important to consider the limitations of this study which may also be addressed in future research. For instance, one limitation can be considered to be the use of snowball sampling in generating the sample of respondents. Snowball sampling is often criticised for being non‐representative, and it may be argued that a probability sampling technique would yield a more representative sample. However, in this study, snowball sampling was selected owing to the non‐familiarity of the researcher to the homeworkers. If conducting future research of a similar nature, since the researcher has now established contact with Company Y, this may help in recruiting a larger sample size in order to provide a greater representation of a particular homeworking population.
A further insight provided by the findings was that homeworkers could seek greater social interaction with family members when working from home. This suggests an increasing reliance upon personal relationships for the provision of interaction previously received through professional relationships with colleagues. Further research into this issue can help to understand the changing expectations of homeworkers from both work and family life. Furthermore, considering that homeworkers used their mobile phone for maintaining social interaction during domestic time and space, the impact on homeworkers' domestic life from both their perspective and that of their family members can provide useful insights into the implications of work‐home integration. Moreover, taking into account the increasing availability of other handheld devices, future research may investigate how these may be used by homeworkers for the same purpose. The fact that a number of respondents gave their personal home telephone number to colleagues – so they could be contacted outside of work hours – highlights how, unlike the mobile phone which allows work to cross into the home domain, work activities are being conducted on domestic equipment. Investigating how non‐work devices are used in this way can subsequently provide an alternative perspective as to how work and home are becoming more integrated.
Yogesh K. Dwivedi can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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