Tuesday, 10 December 2013

How space and time collide for self-employed teleworkers

I'm self-employed and often need to get work done in a variety of locations. In theory, I should be most productive at home, with everything at my fingertips, but sometimes the exact reverse is true (which explains why I'm writing this from a cafe). So it was a treat to read a recent article by Mona Mustafa and Michael Gold on managing 'temporal and physical boundaries among self-employed teleworkers.' The article reports on a number of practices that may be useful to anyone in this situation.

The researchers interviewed 20 self-employed teleworkers – people who work outside a formal office and engaged in non face-to-face work -  from France, the US and UK. Most respondents regarded having a clear separate physical location for work as necessary even though in the main no-one else was in the house when work took place. Respondents who began only quasi-separated soon became dissatisfied: for instance, one interviewee ended up introducing a room divider into her bedroom-work space: 'I did not want to be trying to go to sleep and kind of looking at my work, I wanted to have some kind of physical separation of work from sleep...'

The paper references Alan Felstead's continuum used to describe how work-life and home-life interrelate. At one extreme, these are totally detached and invisible to one another, and at the other they are fully assimilated. Mustafa and Gold found their interviewees’ insights suggest that this continuum might exist for three different features of the work-home divide: equipment, activity, and ambience. For example, a work area may be decorated distinctly from the rest of the house, and all work equipment may be restricted to that area - keeping these areas detached - yet the worker might use the area for chats with a visitor or to go through household accounts, thus blending activities.

Without a remote manager providing external pressure, many of the interviewees found it hard to get it across to family and friends that their hours were sacrosanct and that they were 'really' working. Separating space was important for creating boundaries, essentially consecrating a corner of home as not-Home-but-Work. A more insidious danger was a self-inflicted one: use of mobile technology.

We've reported on how this can undermine work-home distinctions in remote working employees, but the problems are compounded for the self-employed, who rely on client requests to get revenue and so may be reluctant to switch off in the fear of missing the call for a piece of work. Mobile technology therefore breaks down the boundaries that the self-employed may dearly depend on.

Mustafa and Gold conclude that the lack of strong temporal boundaries for the self-employed – working beyond 9 to 5; commissions potentially coming in at any time – makes it all the more vital to get the physical ones in place. They emphasise that a range of strategies may be workable, but that it is important to recognise that your workspace is defined – or left defined – by how you manage equipment, ambience/design, and how disciplined you are in assigning work and non-work to the appropriate locations. Just as their respondents do, 'make choices, experiment and adapt to the environment' that you have to make work, to do your work.

ResearchBlogging.orgMona Mustafa, & Michael Gold (2013). ‘Chained to my work’? Strategies to manage temporal and physical boundaries among self-employed teleworkers Human Resource Management Journal, 23 (4), 413-429

Further reading:
Felstead, A., Jewson, N. and Walters, S. (2005). Changing Places of Work, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


  1. Exactly the results I found during my MSc Occupational Psychology home based working research in 2007 - the temporal and spacial separation from work & home are vitally important. My findings suggest strategies such as encouraging a "commute" for the home-based worker (perhaps taking the dog for a walk or popping out for a paper) to move from the home space to the work space. Happy to share my findings if interested

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