Tethered or trusted? The “There’s no excuse not to be at your desk” phenomenon
Updated: May 1
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
Imagine this scenario: Marie is an IT manager. It's 10am. She emails Gary, one of her team with an urgent query. After 10 minutes, still no response. “That’s odd…” she thinks. “He hasn’t called in sick so he should be working today”. She tries to call him on Teams, still no answer. What’s going on, she wonders, I’ve told him he needs to be available between 9-5 so where is he? Ten minutes later, another Zoom call with no response. In her mind, she sees Gary off on a jog, or having a nap. So now she’s pretty annoyed. It's peak work time; she’s been trying for 40 minutes now - he’s clearly not working. She sends Gary an email telling him she’s had enough - "There’s no excuse not to be at your desk, this better not happen again”.
Meanwhile, Gary’s actually been on a Microsoft Teams call dealing with a frantic worker whose had a technological crisis in midst of a meeting a really important deadline. Gary gets off the call to receive the string of messages from Marie.
In this scenario, you can see that Marie has been quick to make the assumption that – just because Gary is not responding immediately – he is ‘not working’. She has been quick to insist that he should be constantly available.
Although this is a hypothetical scenario, it is based on real experiences that workers have shared with me.
An “always on” culture in which people are expected to always be available to their bosses ‘anywhere, anytime’ crept into many of our lives through the widespread use of ICTs such as mobile phones (McDowall, A. and Kinman, G., 2017).
Such an "always" on culture can emerge even more strongly in remote work situations (Derks, Duin, Tims & Bakker, 2015) because, in a nutshell, managers don’t trust if their workers are actually working, so they start to develop an unreasonable expectation of constant availability.
They insist on micromanaging workers by having checking on their activities and progress all the time. And workers, too, sometimes fall into the mindset that they better be available at all times just to ‘show’ they’re indeed working.
In the best of times, this ‘always on’ expectation causes increased work family interference (Grant et al., 2013) and increases work stress. But right now, it is even more likely to contribute to burnout because people are working in situations with additional pressures such as kids in the house and extra demands due to the changes in their work.
From a productivity perspective, it’s also not logical to think that just because people are “physically present” they are performing well. Imagine that Marie insists Gary leave his camera on all day long so she can check up on him…. Well that will ensure Gary works his hours, but does that mean Gary will be performing in a responsive, creative, high performing way? Unlikley! Gary is going to do high quality work if he is engaged and motivated, and if he has got the necessary skills and time. Micromanagement in the form of ‘chaining people to the desk’ is not a good way to get the best out of people.
So, what to do? As a manager, you need to trust your workers, give them autonomy, and then focus on managing the outputs of their work, or their performance, rather than their inputs, such as their presence.
For example, Maria could focus on whether Gary’s clients are satisfied with his work.
Such an approach supports people’s agency, and allows them to work to their own rhythm. Agency is the “A” in our SMART model of work design. Much research shows that agency in the form of job autonomy is motivating, which means people are likely to put in greater effort. Autonomy also boosts mental health and well-being because people have more autonomy to manage their demands (Parker, 2014; see Safework publications below). For these reasons, we recommend you give people autonomy over the hours they work, as well as the order they do their tasks, as much as is feasible. And then focus on the results they deliver.
An extreme version of this flexibility strategy is a Results Only Work Environment (or ROWE) in which you take little or no notice of when or where or even how people work so long as they deliver this results. This was first shown to be effective for performance in an electronics store called Best Buy in the US, and subsequently shown to have success in other companies (e.g., reduced turnover, improved health behaviour of employees, see Moen et al., 2011a,b; see Box 1).
Box 1: Successful Example of ROWE in a Medical Setting (Results Only Work Environment) In one study (Borsky et al., 2013), a group of physicians were given the autonomy to deliver care to patients in a medical home. They were able to work from home one day per week and the requirement for a minimum number of appointments for other clinic days was removed. In addition, instead of a centralized appointment schedule for patients, the team given more control over its own appointment schedule (which meant they could decide, for example, which appointments were better for in-patients and which were better for telehealth). By comparing data from the 3,500 patients enrolled to ROWE team providers (intervention group) against 36,000 patients enrolled to non-ROWE team providers (comparison group), the researchers reported extremely “promising” findings. Specifically, the implementation of ROWE was associated with reduced utilization and costs for its patients, especially those patients with chronic conditions. There were, for example, reductions in emergency room and urgent-care clinic visits, reduced pharmacy and ancillary costs, and reduced per person per month costs. The authors concluded “ROWE may be a good model to help improve provider satisfaction and allow providers more flexibility in their work schedule with the goal of better work-life balance. With increased flexibility, providers may be able to focus more on improving patient outcomes”.
It is important to note a couple of caveats:
First, giving people complete autonomy over their work hours isn’t always going to be appropriate or feasible. For example, if people’s jobs are to provide customer service at particular hours, then clearly they need to work during those hours. Likewise if you supervise a team that needs to collaborate together, having some overlapping hours is going to help with co-ordination.
Second, autonomy over working hours doesn’t mean anarchy! It is very reasonable for you to expect your team members to let you and others know what their working times are, and to expect them to be available for key meetings.
Third, autonomy over work hours doesn’t mean abdication or abandonment of your employees. If you are focusing on results, it is even more important that people are clear about their work goals, and that you provide them with support and give feedback. In other words, frequent and regular communication is still important – perhaps even more important - but the communication is not about checking to see that they are working, but guiding and supporting people to do the work well.
Don’t electronically tether your team to the desk through expectations of constant availability, and don’t try to micromanage their inputs. Instead, convey to your workers that you trust them, give them as much autonomy and flexibility as suits the situation and the person, and focus on the results your team deliver.
For some government guidance on “good work design”: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/system/files/documents/1702/good-work-design-handbook.pdf
For the research underpinning good work design principles:
Parker, SK. Does the Evidence and Theory Support the Good Work Design Principles? An Educational Resource. SafeWork Australia, ISBN 978-1-76028-435-0. See: (https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/system/files/documents/1702/does-the-evidence-theory-support-good-work-design-principles.pdf)
For more about ROWE:
Borsky, M. P. P., et al., (2013) Implementing a Results-only Work Environment in a Patient-centered Medical Home. SGIM FORUM; 37(2).
Derks, D., van Duin, D., Tims, M., & Bakker, A. B. (2015). Smartphone use and work–home interference: The moderating role of social norms and employee work engagement. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 88(1), 155-177.
Grant, C.A., Wallace, L.M. and Spurgeon, P.C. (2013), “An exploration of the psychological factors affecting remote e-worker’s job effectiveness, well-being and work-life balance”, Employee Relations, Vol. 35 No. 5, pp. 527-546.
McDowall, A. and Kinman, G. (2017), "The new nowhere land? A research and practice agenda for the “always on” culture", Journal of Organizational Effectiveness: People and Performance, Vol. 4 No. 3, pp. 256-266. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOEPP-05-2017-0045
Moen P, Kelly EL, Hill R. Does enhancing work-time control and flexibility reduce turnover? A naturally occurring experiment. Social Problems 2011; 58(1): 69-98. 7.
Moen P, Kelly E, Tranby E, Huang Q. Changing work, changing health: can real worktime flexibility promote health behaviors and well being? J Health Soc Behavior 2011; 52(4):404-29.
Parker, S. K. (2014). Beyond motivation: Job and work design for development, health, ambidexterity, and more. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 661-691.