Photo: Yasmina H, Unsplash

Sustainable remote work relies on a variety of factors

The outcome of remote work can be increased productivity as well as a higher risk of burnout. New research from the University of Gothenburg and University West explores how technology can contribute to remote workplace sustainability.

Aleksandre Asatiani
Aleksandre Asatiani
Photo: Maja Härnqvist

Aleksandre Asatiani, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, conducted a study in collaboration with Livia Norström, senior lecturer at University West, focusing on the social and economic benefits and risks of remote work for longer periods of time. The research article is available to read in the prestigious Journal of Strategic Information Systems.

Aleksandre Asatiani, why did you decide to study remote working?

– We decided to investigate remote workplace research for two reasons. First, I had a personal interest in remote work. I have studied remote workplaces since 2015, publishing a couple of academic articles on the topic. I wanted to go deeper into remote work sustainability for a while. Around the same time, FORTE had funding for researchers looking to do in-depth overviews of work-related research areas. I saw it as a great opportunity. Second, this study was initiated at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when remote work got a lot of exposure. We felt that this was a great time to analyze what we know about the topic and see what there is to study going forward.

Remote work has been around since late 1970, gaining real traction at the end of the 1990s when the internet became prevalent. Coincidentally there has been a lot of research on the topic since the turn of the millennium. Yet, there is surprisingly a lot we still do not know. Our collective experience of transitioning to remote work during COVID-19 was proof of this.

Remote work was completely new to a lot of organizations, even the ones that mostly work with knowledge creation and processing. There are also a lot of misconceptions about remote work, for instance, that it decreases productivity (this is highly context-dependent). Now, after the pandemic is over, we are witnessing discussions about the return to the office and hybrid work models, which often seem to be informed by people’s feelings about remote work, rather than evidence and best practices. We wanted to make our small contribution to putting the discourse back on the right path.

What did you find when researching sustainable remote workplaces?

– In this paper, we reviewed research on remote work published between 1999 and 2020. We were trying to find out whether existing research had some clues about making remote workplaces more sustainable. In our case, we focused on social and economic sustainability and looked at these aspects from the individual worker’s perspective. We were wondering whether one can maintain both productivity and well-being while working remotely for longer periods of time.

Existing research suggests that remote work outcomes can seem paradoxical. For instance, flexibility brought by remote work can put workers in charge of their schedules increasing their productivity and work satisfaction. At the same time, flexibility can be a major source of burnout and overwork, where workers end up working much more at home than they would have if they were at the office. So, how is it possible that the same features of remote work produce both positive and negative outcomes?

Our review revealed that sustainability of remote work rests on a combination of rigid base characteristics that define the work environment of a worker, and a set of contextual factors. In other words, a lot depends on who workers are (for example their skills, position at an organization, or gender), what type of job they have, and what the work environment is like at the office and at home. These base characteristics set the course for workers navigating a remote workplace, but then contextual factors such as the workers’ ability to balance work and life, and maintain a healthy lifestyle, and social and professional relationships they are able to form with their peers and leaders shape the experience making it either more or less sustainable in the long run.

We find that base characteristics tend to be very hard to change, at least in the short run, but workers and their employers could make a big difference by adjusting contextual factors. For instance, giving workers greater autonomy, or encouraging healthy engagement with work, for instance not working while sick, even if one does not need to leave home, could play a critical role in the sustainability of a workplace. The existing research also suggests that the role of a middle manager is changing amidst more hybrid and remote workplaces. Now managers need to transform from controllers and coordinators of work into enablers and supporters, who focus on adjusting remote workers' work context to enable them to perform at their best, regardless of their personal context at home.

What do you hope that this study will bring to the table and who will it benefit?

– We hope that the study will help facilitate a more forward-looking discussion on sustainable remote workplaces that brings together diverse perspectives. This includes both practitioners who want to build workplaces fit for the future and fellow researchers studying post-pandemic and post-ChatGPT workplaces.

We used our analysis of the existing research to build a conceptual framework for remote workplace sustainability based on the characteristics and conceptual factors discussed before. As information systems researchers we of course wanted to see what technology can do to contribute to remote workplace sustainability. So, we identify a research agenda where we suggest various research directions for our colleagues to take in studying how information systems can help to reinforce positive feedback loops, letting workers maximize the benefits of working remotely while minimizing its negative effects. We suggest looking at information systems from the perspective of inclusion and human-dignity-driven design, which focuses on not only productivity but also the well-being of the diverse body of workers.

About the study

The study came from a FORTE-funded project (Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare).

Read the full article here: