The psychological contract and the transition from of? ce-based to home-based work Susanne Tietze, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University Sara Nadin, Sheffield University School of Management, University of Sheffield Human Resource Management Journal, Vol 21, no 3, 2011, pages 318–334 This article explores how the transition from office-based to home-based work impacts upon the psychological contracts of employees involved.
Adopting a qualitative case study approach, utilising a short-term longitudinal design, the setting is a local authority which implemented a 3-month homeworking pilot scheme. Using the psychological contract as an analytical framework it is shown how the implementation of the changes impacts upon the psychological contracts not only in the workplace but also in the home. In both the arenas of work and the home, obligations are surfaced (and sometimes renegotiated) and boundaries are redrawn. The relationship with the employer becomes increasingly transactional, enabling participants to rede? e the status of work in relation to their other priorities. Whilst homeworkers exhibit an increased commitment to the mode of work and become more productive for their employer, they also exhibit a more transactional orientation to work, threatening to leave if homeworking is withdrawn. We explore the methodological and theoretical implications of our ? ndings drawing attention to the analytical potential of the psychological contract for generating more critical insights. Contact: Dr Sara Nadin, Sheffield University School of Management, University of Sheffield, 9 Mappin Street, Sheffield S1 4DT, UK.
Email: s. j. [email protected] ac. uk hrmj_137 318.. 334 INTRODUCTION U tilising the framework of the psychological contract, the aim of this article is to explore the changing nature of obligations characterising the relationships employees share with their employer and family members in the transition from office-based to home-based working. The organisation concerned is a local authority which implemented homeworking in its taxation department as part of its drive to introduce a series of work-life balance initiatives.
As both public and private sector organisations join the trend in shifting the location of work from the office to the home, conceptual frameworks are needed which aid in exploring the impact of such transitions. In this respect, the psychological contract is an appropriate choice, with the nature of obligations characterising the employment relationship becoming particularly exposed in periods of organisational change. The conceptual framework of the psychological contract can also be extended beyond the boundaries of the workplace to explore the reciprocal obligations characterising relationships in the home.
The case for using the psychological contract in this way is presented in the following section, focusing on the links between organisational change and psychological contract violation and the related distinction between relational and transactional psychological contracts. Relevant research on homeworking is integrated and linked to claims pertaining to the multiplicity of psychology contracts characterising exchange relationships both at work and in the home. Adopting a process orientation, the issues identi? d are then explored using qualitative interview data from the case study. Following the analysis the implications of the study are considered in relation to theory and practice. HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Please cite this article in press as: Tietze, S. and Nadin, S. (2011) ‘The psychological contract and the transition from of? ce-based to home-based work’. Human Resource Management Journal 21: 3, 318–334. 318 Susanne Tietze and Sara Nadin PSYCHOLOGICAL CONTRACTS Re? ecting broad trends concerned with increasing ? xibility and family friendly policies, more and more employees are being offered the opportunity to shift their location of work from the office to the home. It is this shift and the effect the transition has on the psychological contracts of employees involved which is the focus of this article. De? ned by Rousseau as ‘the individual beliefs, shaped by the organisation, regarding terms of an exchange agreement between the individual and their organisation’ (Rousseau, 1995: 9), the psychological contract has emerged as a popular framework for understanding contemporary employment relationships and the changing nature of work.
Operating as they do at the level of individual beliefs, psychological contracts concern the obligations employees believe they owe their employer and what they can expect in return for ful? lling these obligations. The promises made by the organisation can be either implicit or explicit and their content may vary, as re? ected in the distinction between relational and transactional contracts. Transactional contracts, typi? ed as instrumental, are concerned with the tangibles of the employment relationship, such as pay and bene? ts and are typically short term with clearly de? nable outcomes for both parties.
By contrast, relational contracts are relationship focused and concerned with less tangible outcomes such as trust and loyalty. Relational aspects of the contract are less likely to be explicitly discussed, especially in newer employment relationships, emerging as they do over time with the development of personal relationships between the different parties. It is relational psychological contracts which many employers consider most desirable, signifying as they do increased commitment from employees and a willingness to improve their performance. Strong relational contracts are also re? ective of the employees’ identi? ation with the organisation and its goals. Whilst there is some debate about the mutual exclusiveness of the distinction between transactional and relational contracts (Arnold, 1996; Guest, 1998), exploring the contents of the psychological contract in this manner has yielded fruitful insights, speci? cally when considering the impact of psychological contract breach and violation. Whilst there is some operational anxiety surrounding the distinction between breach and violation, the former is associated with the less serious transgressions of obligations and the latter with the more serious transgressions of promises.
For employees, a failure on behalf of the employer to ful? l their obligations and promises results in a range of withdrawal behaviours and a shift to a more transactional orientation towards their employer. Psychological contract violation erodes trust and undermines loyalty which lies at the heart of relational contracts, having a variety of negative consequences for both the individual and the organisation (e. g. lower levels of job satisfaction, organisational commitment and extra role behaviour (McLean Parks and Kidder, 1994; Robinson and Rousseau, 1994; Turnley and Feldman, 1999)).
The greater the degree of perceived contract breach by employees then the less committed they are to the organisation (Robinson and Rousseau, 1994) and the lower their perceived job performance by their supervisors (Lester et al. , 2002). More damaging consequences include sabotage (Morrison and Robinson 1997) and, ultimately, exit from the organisation (Pugh et al. , 2003). Awareness of the attitudinal and behavioural consequences of psychological contract violation highlights the reciprocal and processual nature of psychological contracting.
These dynamics are often starkly exposed in periods of change which often constitute or deliver the ‘triggering events’ rendering the mutual obligations between employee and employer both visible and salient (Guzzo et al. , 1994). When exposed existing obligations are more likely to be challenged and re-negotiated, with perceptions of breach more likely to occur (Robinson, 1996). As Dick (2006) points out, ‘to better understand how the psychological contract mediates outcomes, such as commitment and retention, it is necessary to examine what happens to the HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 19 Homeworking and the psychological contract contract during changes in the circumstances of employment’ (Dick, 2006: 39). As such, change events offer an ideal window, through which the dynamics of psychological contracting can be studied, processes which are often overlooked in much psychological contract research where the focus is more typically on content (Conway and Briner, 2005). This brings us to the current study in which the change being studied is the transition from office-based to home-based working. We attempt to understand the impact of this transition using the psychological contract as an interpretive framework.
One signi? cant advantage here is that this framework can be extended beyond the boundary of the formal workplace to also consider obligations in the domestic realm of unpaid work. This rationale is the focus of the next section. PSYCHOLOGICAL CONTRACTS BEYOND THE WORKPLACE Home-working practices have been associated with the emergence of work-life balance initiatives (Crosbie and Moore, 2004; Tietze et al. , 2006), and re? ect a trend which is still on the increase (see Moynagh and Worsley, 2005). They are also indicative of the increasing complexity of relationships characterising the arena of paid work.
One aspect of this increasing complexity is the potential for employees to share contracts with multiple parties (Marks, 2001; Schalk and Rousseau, 2001; Millward Purvis and Cropley, 2003). To date, empirical research charting the complexity of multiple exchange relationships is limited and remains restricted to those relationships within the domain of paid work. Many of the complexities surrounding homeworking relate to the blurring of the boundaries between the domains of home and work, characterised as they are by different sets of relationships, obligations and values (Perin, 1998).
Here studies show for example how home-working practices both challenge existing (gendered) traditions and relationships embedded within them, while simultaneously con? rming and perpetuating them (Mirchandani, 2000; Tremblay, 2002; Sullivan 2003). Thus, the transition to homeworking not only raises questions of how the individual employee relates to their employer, but also how the transition impacts upon exchange relationships with other family members. As Baker (1996) points out, psychological contracts are present in any relationship in which there exist expectations between the parties (e. . wife and husband, doctor and patient, student and teacher, consumer and service provider (Baker, 1996; Conway and Briner, 2005: 15). Despite this acknowledgement however, empirical studies of psychological contracts outside the domain of work are virtually non-existent. Given the potential multiplicity of relationships characterising both the arenas of home and work, this raises important questions concerning possible interactions and tensions when obligations associated with different parties intersect in the same geographical space, i. e. he home (Mirchandani, 2000; Tietze and Musson, 2005). Thus, the psychological contract is an appropriate framework for understanding home-working practices because it can be extended to include non-work exchange relationships, based as they are on the same principals of reciprocity associated with social exchange. It therefore becomes possible to more accurately re? ect the complexities and challenges faced when ‘coping with’ homeworking by taking a holistic approach to understanding the changing nature of exchange relationships without arti? ially divorcing the employee experience into two separate symbolic domains of work and home. Having made the case for using the psychological contract as an interpretive framework, the speci? c aim of this article is to explore changes to obligations characterising the exchange relationships of homeworkers who make the transition from office to home-based working. In pursuit of this aim, three key research questions have been de? ned: 320 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Susanne Tietze and Sara Nadin What do employees expect to gain from homeworking? • Have the expectations of employees been ful? lled? • What effect has homeworking had on the exchange relationships between employees and their employer/colleagues/family? METHODOLOGY Deriving from an interpretative approach, which seeks to understand the meaning worlds of different social and occupational groups (Johnson and Duberley, 2000), we adopted a qualitative case study approach, set within the taxation department of a local authority (LA) which was about to pilot a home-working initiative lasting 3 months.
A short-term longitudinal design was used, the key objective being to explore changes at several different junctures over the time period of the pilot scheme (Bryman, 2008). Data were gathered using interviews with homeworkers over a 4-month period covering the stages before, during and after the pilot. Supplementary data were obtained by the ? rst author who attended a variety of events and activities related to the home-working initiative (e. g. a launch event, focus groups).
This helped inform our understandings and interpretations of the interview data as well as providing important contextual information. The research context The LA had embarked on a series of work-life balance initiatives. These were driven by the senior management and were considered of strategic importance as they would ensure effective service delivery as well as turning the LA into a modern and progressive employer. Also, to counteract prevailing estate problems, considerations of the senior management team focused strongly on olutions which would enable work activity to become geographically ? exible and to be conducted outside the traditional office. Home-working practices were considered to be an appropriate way forward and a ‘home-working pilot’ of 3 months duration was initiated which introduced full-time homeworking in the bene? ts and taxation units of the LA. This initiative was therefore part of a wider managerial agenda to modernise the LA, prompted by economic needs for greater efficiency and ideological aspirations to be regarded as a progressive employer.
The bene? ts and taxation units had undergone a period of structural change in which the delivery of services were rearranged, so that a front office section dealt directly with citizens, and a back office section processed forms and saw to all other administrative tasks. For the purposes of the pilot, only employees in the back office section were invited to participate in the home-working initiative. These employees were considered to be ‘semi-skilled’ officers, who had no higher formal quali? cations or educational attainments.
According to their job description and pay scale, the major part of their tasks should be the processing of forms (e. g. applications for housing bene? ts) and to help out with rota tasks (e. g. reading and dissemination of update reports). Yet many of these officers had years of experience and carried responsibilities far beyond their job title and pay scale: they mentored younger colleagues, advised on computer systems and software, disseminated technical knowledge and provided instant support to colleagues who struggled with the more complex cases they had to evaluate.
Additionally, the restructuring of the service section had upset established teams and their routines, with more and more tasks being channelled through these units. This, together with emotional fall-out from the change period had created an atmosphere which was described to us as ‘hostile’, ‘hateful’ and ‘causing immense stress and frustration’ to the officers. In addition, long- and medium-term sickness-related absences of staff were not uncommon, which increased the volume of work for remaining staff.
So, in spite of the HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 321 Homeworking and the psychological contract managerial rhetoric of enabling employees to attain a better work-life balance through the implementation of homeworking, the in? uence of existing departmental tensions in prompting the participants to opt for homeworking cannot be ignored. Research participants In total, 10 members of the back office staff volunteered to participate in the homeworking pilot; of these seven agreed to participate in our research project. These individuals, all women, re? cted the gendered structure of this particular office; all lived within a 10-mile radius of the LA and commuted to work by car or public transport. Each of the seven women was interviewed three times, yielding a total of 21 interviews (see ‘data collection’). • • • • • • • Respondent Respondent Respondent Respondent Respondent Respondent Respondent 1: 2: 3: 4: 5: 6: 7: cohabiting, two children cohabiting, one child married, three children married, no children married, one child cohabiting, no children married, two children This sample is not meant to be representative in any statistical sense.
The interviewees are seen as informants and whatever information they proffer is understood as re? ecting constructed, not objective realities (Lincoln and Guba, 1985). This is not to deny the materiality of shifting the location of work into the home, rather we understand the shift from a variety of socially derived perspectives, re? ecting the ways our respondents ‘coped’ with the relocation of work into their homes. Data collection Spread over a 4-month period, interview data were collected at three points throughout the pilot scheme (Fig. 1).
Initial interviews were conducted before the homeworking pilot commenced (point 1) and again approximately 2 months into the pilot (point 2) as well at its conclusion after 4 months (point 3). FIGURE 1 Duration of pilot scheme and stages of data collection 322 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Susanne Tietze and Sara Nadin The focus of the pre-implementation interviews was the theme of the ? rst key research question: 1. What did they expect to gain from homeworking? The second and third round of interviews focused on the two key remaining research questions: 2.
Have their expectations been ful? lled? 3. What effect has homeworking had on their (exchange) relationships with their employer/colleagues/family? The interview schedule comprised of general questions on these themes. The interviews proceeded ? exibly enabling the interviewee to focus on issues of particular importance to them. This was important given the inductive nature of the research in which our priority was for appropriate theoretical constructs to emerge from the data, rather than constraining data collection through the imposition of predetermined theoretical constructs.
This is why none of the questions make explicit mention of the psychological contract or related terms such as promises, obligations and violation (see data analysis). The accounts generated are the participants’ subjective articulations of their experiences, which are then interpreted through the analytical lens of the psychological contract. The interviews were conducted by the ? rst author on an individual basis, taking place on the premises of the LA (? rst interviews), in the home of the participants (second interviews) and on the premises of the LA during a ‘call back’ day at the conclusion of the pilot.
As well as the obvious bene? t of being able to explore changes throughout the pilot period, engaging with respondents at least three times enabled the clari? cation of issues and the establishment of a good rapport. This was enhanced by the location of the second interviews in the home of each participant and, consequently, personal perspectives were revealed and discussed in both interviews 2 and 3. All participants agreed to have their interviews recorded which were then transcribed verbatim.
Data analysis Consistent with the epistemological position of social constructionism, the data were analysed using template analysis (King, 1998). Template analysis is a widely used approach for qualitative data analysis and is often referred to by other terms such as ‘code book analysis’ or ‘thematic coding’. The basic idea is to identify themes represented in the data, themes which are indicative of the salient and common issues which emerge in response to the questions asked. Key themes are often identi? ed a priori re? ecting the principal research questions.
Having loosely categorised the data according to its key themes, the data within each category were subject to closer scrutiny and categorised further into sub-themes. The process itself is iterative being repeated until a level of re? nement is reached such that no further subcategorisation is required and all of the data are accounted for, as re? ected in the ? nal template. Two template analyses were conducted – one for the pre-implementation data and the other for the post-implementation data. In total, each template went through four iterations before it was decided that the analysis was complete.
For the purposes of reliability, both authors were involved in this process, each working independently in the initial stages of categorisation, then collaborating to agree upon the categories identi? ed before commencing with the next iteration. A copy of the ? nal templates can be found in Appendix 1. Categorisation of the data and production of the ? nal template is a means to an end (King, 1998), with the template then requiring interpretation and theorisation. One way of proceeding HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 323 Homeworking and the psychological contract nductively in this manner is through the use of ‘sensitising concepts’ (Blumer, 1954). Resting on a ‘general sense of what is relevant’, sensitising concepts suggest ‘directions along which to look’, providing a ‘general sense of reference and guidance in approaching empirical instances’ (Blumer, 1954: 7). It was in attempting to interpret and theorise the data in this way that the psychological contract emerged as a key sensitising concept and appropriate theoretical framework. This was prompted by references to social exchange principles such as equity and reciprocity, along with strong feelings of breach and violation re? cted in their emotive accounts of the current situation and the desire to restore balance to the relationship. That respondents were talking about examples of obligations rather than simply expectations, was inferred from the emphasis in their accounts on the other party and the centrality of exchange, which for expectations is not necessary (Conway and Briner, 2005). The emotionally charged nature of the accounts, especially in relation to breaches, also suggested deeper levels of engagement more typically associated with bligations and promises rather than expectations (Conway and Briner, 2005). As Blumer (1954) suggests of sensitising concepts, which is consistent with our own epistemological position of social constructionism, we are not claiming that the psychological contract offers the de? nitive account of the data. It does however offer one interpretation which is persuasively plausible and contributes to our understanding of the participants’ reported experiences. ANALYSIS AND FINDINGS This section is organised according to the three key research questions.
As will be shown, understanding why these women volunteered for homeworking and their responses to its implementation reveal not only what their expectations were and whether or not these had been ful? lled, but also the crucial impact of local and individual factors upon the nature and dynamics of these expectations. The relevance of the psychological contract is suggested by the ? nding that core ideas such as psychological contract breach, distinctions between relational and transactional contracts, and related notions such as reciprocity and equity, resonate strongly with the nuances expressed in the data, as will be demonstrated.
The relevance of such concepts to home-based relationships is also very apparent. Pre-implementation interviews Research question 1: What do employees expect to gain from homeworking? Two main themes were identi? ed here: (a) the ability to better ful? l their domestic responsibilities and (b) the desire to ‘escape’ from the office. For those with caring responsibilities (which included children, elderly parents and pets), homeworking offered greater temporal ? exibility for the scheduling of work and home tasks. For example, all three participants with school-aged children talked about how they could start work earlier and do an hour or so before the school run). For all participants, having this control along with no travelling would free up more time which could then be devoted to non-work activities. This was envisaged as potentially providing a much better quality of life enabling them to spend more time with their families as well as on themselves. The most dominant theme in relation to this research question however, and one emphasised by all participants, was the current negative atmosphere in the office and the desire to escape from this.
Several interviewees complained about staff shortages caused by many colleagues being on sick leave with many others looking for alternative employment. 324 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Susanne Tietze and Sara Nadin It is a problem now so, because we are really down on staff and we are getting so snowed under with work that we are just not going to be able to catch up. Because people are on sickness they can’t replace them as they have to leave the jobs open, which is a problem. Respondent 1 = R1) For R2, the resulting job overload caused a feeling of resignation: To be quite honest realistically, I have just come to the point where I am just not bothering anymore. I can’t win. Many of the problems were explicitly linked to poor management. Interviewer: Do you feel that you have a good relationship with your team leader in that they will trust you to do the work and you trust them? I have no idea whether they trust me or not. But this is one reason I want to be out of the office environment because of the management style.
I know times are changing but it used to be an enjoyment to come to work whereas now it isn’t. It’s unpleasant. It is an unpleasant atmosphere in the office. (R3) Other more speci? c aspects of poor management included managers who covered up staff shortages in case it re? ected badly on them whilst expecting the remaining staff to carry the burden. Also overlooked by managers were underperforming colleagues who were never held to account. Compounding these feelings of task overload were perceptions of inequity in relation to pay and promotion.
One respondent detailed how, with the recent changes, she was expected to perform tasks beyond her pay and seniority scale. Working from home was one way of redressing this balance as the type of work which could be carried out at home was restricted to less complex tasks, consistent with her pay scale. Similar sentiments were expressed by one employee who had been overlooked for promotion due to a lack of formal quali? cations, yet was still expected to display knowledge commensurate with this higher grade. I applied for it [promotion] but I didn’t get an interview because I have not got quali? ations really because of my age. We had CSE’s when we were at school and they’re quite hot on quali? cations. So I didn’t even get an interview but I am still getting asked how do you do this, what do you with this one? (R4) With little chance of promotion, R4’s next step in career terms was retirement, something which she felt she was too young for. Working from home offered an ideal solution to her dilemma as she explains: But I thought the only reason that I would want to retire is to stop coming to work, whereas if I am working from home I have stopped coming to work.
But if I am working from home then I have still got that day ? lled but I am not coming to work. (R4) It was in the context of the negative office atmosphere that participants emphasised the advantages of homeworking in terms of their own personal well-being. Many talked of the desire to be less stressed, calmer and a ‘nicer person’. As expressed by R3 and echoed by others, it was difficult to prevent the negative aspects of work impacting upon their home life. HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 325 Homeworking and the psychological contract
We spend so much time at work and it is very depressing and stressful, and you know, I just want to be a nicer person at home and so that’s why I really want to do it. (R3) A related theme which emerged in the pre-implementation interviews concerned the participants’ orientation to work. These comments inform our understanding and interpretation of the above ? ndings as important revelations are made about the status of work in their lives more generally. Most interviewees had an instrumental/transactional orientation to work, some simply because it had never been a job they aspired to and they did not consider it a ‘career’.
I think it’s just about getting it done. The job at the end of the day is not like a career job, it is not like teaching or anything like that where I would get anything special out of it. (R5) Others similarly de? ned their commitment to work in purely transactional terms which was itself indicative of a withdrawal prompted by the negative atmosphere at work and related perceptions of inequity. I won’t do any more hours than what I am contracted to do. It will be just like here, if you clear the work in the day then you go and get some more so yeah, I would do the same but I would only do it for my contracted hours. R6) Implicit in these comments is that working from home represents a withdrawal from and rejection of normative assumptions concerning the centrality of work (such as those bound up with the notion of a ‘career’). In adopting a more instrumental orientation to their workplace obligations, a degree of mutual reciprocity is restored by ‘ring-fencing’ the terms of the exchange agreement between employee and employer. Whilst this does not deal with the problems of understaffing and/or poor management, this need no longer be the concern of those employees working from home.
Thus, at the pre-implementation stage, the participants were very positive about the prospect of homeworking, even though this was largely because they wanted to escape the fraught office environment, whilst also enabling them to better ful? l non-work obligations. Post-implementation interviews Research question 2: Have these expectations been ful? lled? Responses to homeworking were extremely positive with all participants stating how much they enjoyed it. Many were surprised at how well they had adapted and the bene? ts gained had exceeded their expectations.
Common to many was a much improved sense of personal well-being in terms of feeling less stressed and more relaxed. This was frequently explicitly related to having escaped the office with ‘all that bickering and gossiping’ (R1). Indeed, the occasions on which they had to return to the office (say for a meeting or a day of training), merely served to remind them how awful it was and what a lucky escape they’d had. I was in for a team meeting yesterday and the bad atmosphere and the stress, it really hit you. I don’t want to go back, I want to continue with this. (R2)
As happier, healthier individuals those with children felt they made better mothers (e. g. did not ‘nag as much’), with all bene? tting from more quality time both for their families and for themselves. In addition to this enhanced personal well-being, also realised were other expectations concerning their domestic roles. Without exception, all participants reported that homeworking 326 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Susanne Tietze and Sara Nadin enabled them to better combine their work and domestic responsibilities (e. g. reparing the evening meal, doing the shopping, house work, etc. ). This was attributed to the greater ? exibility to do tasks when they wanted, the time saved by not travelling, and the spatial proximity of ‘work’ and home. For two respondents, tasks had become redistributed to a certain degree with their partners more likely to make the evening meal. This was because one homeworker now often worked in the evenings because she had several breaks during the day, and the other (R2) had realised through working at home how little her partner did in his job as a self-employed builder.
I always thought he’d be doing all these heavy buildery kind of things. Now I’ve found out that he doesn’t always work quite as hard or as constantly as I thought. I now say ‘I wish I was a builder, it’s an easy job’. He’s had the easier deal all these years and I had the hard deal. I used to come home and ? nd him snoozing on the sofa and I thought ‘oh, he’s had a really hard day, I better let him sleep and get us tea going’ – this week I had him make the tea three times. Working from home also enabled those with equity issues in relation to work to restore the balance which effectively stopped them from leaving the organisation.
If it hadn’t been for the homeworking I’d have left the council by now because they were expecting so much for the money I was getting. . . . but now I do the work for my scale and that’s it. (R1) Not surprisingly, the prospect of a return to the office did not appeal to any of the participants, with several stating that they would de? nitely leave if they were forced to do so. One participant said she would rather leave and do agency work than go back into the office (R7).
Another explains how working from home is what makes work tasks more bearable as she does not particularly enjoy the job itself. Only one respondent conceded that she might contemplate returning to the office if it was considered necessary for the purposes of promotion and a salary increase. The overwhelmingly positive response to homeworking was reinforced with reference to productivity improvements. All respondents were getting through far more work than they ever did in the office and were consistently exceeding the targets set (some by 55%).
The dramatic impact of this increase was perhaps most apparent for those who had been able to clear back-logs of work and move on to routinely deal with tasks which would ordinarily have been left untouched for 3 to 4 months back in the office. Many felt they were working much harder and consistently with fewer interruptions, ultimately resulting in more effective working. Many stressed however that they did stick rigidly to their 37 h, so they were content with working ‘harder’ as long as they did not exceed their 37 h.
Two respondents explicitly stated that they intended to keep their productivity high in order to avoid being pulled back into the office. In the language of the psychological contract, employees now de? ned their obligations to their employer purely in terms of productivity, in exchange for which they expected the homeworking to continue. Research question 3: What effect has homeworking had on their (exchange) relationships with their employer/colleagues/family? The rather rosy post-implementation picture presented so far is tempered by several issues related to the home/office interface.
When talking about their office-based colleagues a number of speci? c tensions were identi? ed. In the past, if interviewees had any queries about any of their cases – which happened quite frequently – they would simply ask others in the office for clari? cation. Now they were working HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 327 Homeworking and the psychological contract from home it had been arranged by managers that they should contact by telephone a nominated person in the office for clari? ation. This was turning out to be very problematic with feelings of ‘them and us’ emerging. The homeworkers detailed examples of how contact with the office was made very difficult by some responses and an obvious resentment from those in the office. One incident in particular is illustrative here. Having called the office to check up on the status of certain documents, R1 describes the response from her manager: I overheard her say ‘No, and I’m hungry me, I haven’t had any lunch yet, do they think I’m here for their convenience?
So I put in an official complaint and it was sorted eventually even though she did say we didn’t know what pressure they were under in the office . . . she even ignored us when we went back in the office once and when this came up she said ‘well, I don’t know what you’re doing at home anyway’. Other homeworkers were concerned that it would look like they were struggling with task completion if they rang in too much. In response to this, one had bought her own book on bene? t law so that she could answer her own queries and another rang fellow homeworkers rather than office-based staff.
Well, I should ring the office but I feel like every time I do I get my wrists slapped, so I just ring one of the others [homeworkers] instead. (R7) Many had resigned themselves to ‘toughing out’ this situation with a couple wishing they had more regular contact with the office so that they could more easily catch up on what was happening. Another tension identi? ed by several respondents was a lack of trust from managers who they felt rang primarily for the purpose of checking up on them such that, if they were not in when managers phoned, or did not respond immediately to emails, they then had to account for themselves.
One employee’s response was to remind her manager of the need for parity in the way they treat home and office-based staff: If management ring and they say ‘I rang you and you weren’t there’ I just turn round and ask if they monitor office-based staff in the same way they do us. (R7) Only one participant expressed concern for her office-based colleagues in terms of their increased workload. She was also the only employee to be considerate in terms of scheduling her tasks (such as printing) to suit the office staff. One employee explicitly stated she was not concerned at all bout whether her office-based colleagues were coping without her or whether her input was missed: It simply ‘wasn’t her problem’ (R3). Using the psychological contract to understand these micro-level interactions again suggests the increasingly transactional nature of the employees’ obligations, dominated as they are by concerns about trust, fairness and parity. However, to conclude that the emergent tensions identi? ed result solely from the implementation of homeworking would be to overlook the underlying problems within the department.
This issue is returned to in the discussion. Turning now to relationships within the home, for all participants, the overwhelming response from other household members was positive. Children liked it because mothers were happier and nicer and ‘didn’t nag so much’. They also just liked knowing they were there even if they were ‘working’ and their immediate attention was not required. The home-working mothers had made it clear to their children from the outset that when they were working they were not to be disturbed, an arrangement which appeared to be working for all concerned.
Most husbands/partners were also very positive as it often relieved pressure on them to 328 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Susanne Tietze and Sara Nadin engage in certain domestic duties. However, in two cases the opposite occurred with the husband/partner now being expected to do more domestic tasks, something which they were not too pleased about. The new arrangements had also upset one grandparent as she was no longer needed for childcare.
Whilst relieving the pressure off her parents was a key reason R1 wanted to work from home, her mother was having none of it. She kept trying to convince her daughter that ‘it’s not good for you’ and felt that she’d ‘had her job stolen’. Another participant also had to ? rmly manage the expectations her mother had of her now that she was working from home: My mum is a nightmare – she just assumes I am not working and can be at her beck and call. I’ve now managed to get her to ring before she calls but she can be on the phone for twenty minutes! R7) Thus, for these participants, the transition to homeworking necessitated and prompted a renegotiation of obligations and expectations characterising relationships with family members. A related emergent theme in the context of changing relationships, and one commonly associated with homeworking, was that of social isolation. Contrary to expectations however, none of the participants found this to be problematic. As R3 pointed out, ‘I don’t miss the office and I don’t feel they miss me’.
This was often explained by drawing a distinction between ‘real friends’ with whom they did remain in contact, and those who were simply work colleagues. I might have lost contact with people you might spend 10 min a day with but not with real friends. (R7) Indeed, no longer being office based often made them more proactive in arranging to meet up with their ‘real friends’ either at lunch time or after work. Many now cited how contact with fellow homeworkers helped prevent feelings of isolation as did having the freedom to meet up with non-work friends at any time during the day.
For the two employees who said they did miss the social side of being at work, this was immediately tempered by the acknowledgement that the bene? ts of homeworking far outweighed this. As one participant pointed out: I thought I’d miss the company and I do a bit but I’m determined not to make it a problem because all the other bene? ts are so good. (R1) DISCUSSION The participants in this study opted for homeworking on the expectation that it would confer a number of advantages.
These included the desire to better combine work with domestic responsibilities (Crosbie and Moore, 2004; Tietze et al. , 2006), but also other factors less well documented in the literature such as the stressful context of the office environment prompting a strong desire to escape it, re? ected in an increasingly transactional orientation to work. This context – from the institutional rhetoric on ? exible working and work-life balance to the tensions characterising the office environment – is crucial to understanding how the psychological contracts in our sample were constituted and changed.
Homeworkers referred to their work as ‘just a job’ rather than a ‘career’, and whilst homeworking might negatively impact upon promotional prospects, the latter was not aspired to in most cases. This reveals how taking into consideration personal and contextual factors helps in understanding the psychological contracts of employees who, in this sample, do not embody the ‘feel good’ ‘feel powerful’ message which lies at the heart of the psychological HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 329 Homeworking and the psychological contract ontracts ideological appeal (Cullinane and Dundon, 2006). For many people, work is a mundane necessity, rendering this feel-good rhetoric meaningless in the context of transactional contracts explicitly de? ned in terms of a set wage for a set number of hours worked. Unlike aspiring MBA students or professionals who are more typical of samples in psychological contract research, for the women in this study, work was not their central life interest (Boxall and Purcell, 2003). Homeworking offered them the opportunity to better ? t work around their lives rather than ? ting their lives around their work. This supports previous assertions that organisations generally are in danger of underestimating the fundamentally transactional nature of the employment relationship for many employees (Herriott et al. , 1997; Nadin and Cassell, 2006), especially for those who have investments elsewhere such as the home (Millward and Brewerton, 2000). What did matter to these employees was the organisations failure to honour obligations relating to workload, pay and promotion, as well as inadequately managing, and at times contributing to, the negative atmosphere in the office.
In psychological contract terms, the participants were experiencing contract violation for which managers, as agents of the organisation, were deemed responsible, resulting in reduced levels of trust, increased cynicism and low job satisfaction. Homeworking offered the participants the opportunity to redress the balance by enabling them to restore equity in terms of workload and pay. In addition, being physically removed from the difficult environment of the office, whilst not resolving the issues, meant it was less of a problematic experience for these employees.
Thus, for the participants in this study the introduction of homeworking enabled them to repair some of the damage done to their psychological contracts, not only in respect of transactional elements (such as doing work of the appropriate scale), but also in respect of relational elements, enabling them to experience more positive working relationships (i. e. with fellow homeworkers). This repair work, however, did not extend to the ongoing relationships with office-based staff, the negativity of which was compounded by tensions and resentment resulting from the introduction of homeworking.
The key difference for our participants, however, was that these tensions could now be kept at bay. This account affirms the appropriateness of the psychological contract as an interpretive framework, providing an understanding of the processes and dynamics of the behavioural and attitudinal responses of the participants in our case study. The danger of the above account however, is that it diverts attention away from the structural, institutional and social tensions in the workplace and focuses on the individual or group who now become the problem (Cullinane and Dundon, 2006).
In our case, this took the form of a ‘them and us’ rivalry between the home- and office-based workers where tensions and speci? c issues about workload were reduced to the level of con? ict between individual employees. Caution is also needed when interpreting other impacts which on the face of it appear to re? ect a more positive relationship with the employer. Whilst this relationship had moved from one of ‘hostility’ to more ‘neutral indifference’ based on mutual and reciprocal obligations, trust had not been restored and the relationship with the employer was now de? ned in even more transactional terms.
Similarly whilst the organisation bene? tted from the increased productivity of the homeworkers, this was at the expense of the relational attributes of loyalty and commitment. Deconstructing these paradoxes hints at the potential for applying the psychological contract critically to explain the uneven micro- and socio-cognitive level processes enacted between employee and employer. Whilst acknowledged theoretically, these processes have received scant empirical attention. The impact on the participants’ home lives was again positive with household relationships becoming less fraught and generally more harmonious.
Despite some challenges to the 330 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Susanne Tietze and Sara Nadin domestic routines, overall, the homeworkers con? rmed traditional gender roles (Tremblay, 2002; Sullivan, 2003) by becoming ‘better’ mothers and wives. In a number of cases, the process of transition did require the explicit and deliberate management of obligations characterising the psychological contracts in the domestic realm, whether it be with partners, children or other relatives. This was re? ected in the more equitable distribution of domestic tasks and the de? ing of clear boundaries relating to their practical and emotional availability. What these instances clearly show is how the transition process of moving work into the home surfaces many of the implicit obligations characterising household relationships, and in doing so, offers the opportunity for these to be renegotiated as well as the opportunity for the reaffirmation of, in particular, gendered assumptions about household roles. Taking these ? ndings together, homeworking provided the women in this study with the opportunity to put work ‘where it should be’ in relation to the rest of their lives and their own aspirations.
Thus, far from homeworking becoming an ‘intrusion into their life world’ (Mirchandani, 2000; Halford, 2005), the closer proximity of work and domestic spheres enabled these participants to exercise greater control such that work had less of an impact on their home lives (Tietze et al. , 2006), ultimately helping them to achieve a better work-life balance (Dick, 2006). Given the bene? ts gained from homeworking, it is easy to understand why all of the participants had no desire to return to the office and wanted the homeworking to continue.
In pursuit of this, the participants are more productive, yet it would be misleading to assume this implies that homeworkers are fully committed to the employer – it is rather the mode of work, i. e. homeworking itself that inspires their loyalty, some even threatening to leave if homeworking is withdrawn. This ? nding contributes to our understanding of the impact of withdrawal behaviours which are generally understood to have a negative impact on the organisation (e. g. decreased levels of performance (Turnley and Feldman, 1999, Lester et al. 2002); reduction in extra-role behaviours and organisational citizenship (Robinson, 1996; Turnley and Feldman, 2000). Whilst there is no doubt that working from home has enabled the women in this study to withdraw from work both physically and emotionally, in doing so their performance levels have increased rather than decreased. CONCLUSION This study highlights the advantages of studying the psychological contract during periods of transition (Guzzo et al. , 1994; Robinson, 1996; Dick, 2006). It also provides an example of much needed qualitative research in the ? ld generating insights into the psychological contracting processes triggered by the changes. The framework of the psychological contract emerged in the search for plausible explanations of the data. This itself re? ects the richness of the data generated and affirms the theoretical robustness of the psychological contract. The highly contextualised accounts reveal the analytical utility of the psychological contract in exposing the tensions which manifest at the micro level of day-to-day interactions but are expressive of broader institutional problems. To conclude, it is worth re? cting on the success of the homeworking initiative. The outcome for our participants was very positive, and with the organisation bene? tting from increased output, it appears to be a win-win situation for both employer and employee. Caution is needed here however. The ? ndings also suggest that managers need to carefully consider the impact of homeworking not just in relation to those making the transition, but also in relation to those left behind in the office, with feelings of resentment from office-based staff potentially creating a new set of problems for managers to deal with (Dick, 2006).
Given the potentially positive impact of effective supervision and mentoring on perceptions of psychological contract HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 331 Homeworking and the psychological contract breach (Zagenczyk et al. , 2009), managers should not de? ect attention away from existing problems by implementing new initiatives. Managers would also be unwise to overlook the fact that it is the mode of work to which these homeworkers are now committed and not the organisation.
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Expected gains from homeworking i. Escape negative aspects of work environment ii. Balance caring and work responsibilities iii. More time for self/family/own interests iv. Avoid the need to retire 3. Orientation to work Post-implementation themes 4. Responses to homeworking i. Own responses ii. Responses of others 5. Productivity improvements 6. Home/office interface 7. Social isolation 8. Impact on household i. Domestic responsibilities ii. Managing boundaries 9. Prospect of a return to the office 334 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, VOL 21 NO 3, 2011 © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.