Web work: Not for the insecure?

Web work can free employees from the constraints of an office, but as many who have made the transition from cube to online collaboration can tell you, the boundary between constraint and support can be blurry.

A recent round-up of research on telecommuting in [email protected] brings this point home. The in-depth article notes that “as the economy flirts with a double-dip recession… the workplace for many Americans has shifted away from crowded offices to a new world of solitary work,” and then proceeds to discuss the challenges of working alone.

Some of these issues like time management and work-life balance challenges have been covered extensively on WebWorkerDaily before, but one difficult aspect of solo work studied by Susan J. Ashford, professor of management at the University of Michigan, is less often discussed: the challenges to ego and self-worth that solo work presents. According to [email protected], her research has led her to conclude:

… [Q]uestions about purpose and meaning come up more easily to workers who have no organization behind them. “Our argument is that your ego is very invested in the work because it’s just you,” she notes. “There’s nobody there to tell you that what you’re doing is great even though profits are going down.”

In a study recently presented at the Academy of Management, Ashford conducted in-depth interviews with solitary workers about how they stay motivated, and discovered that many needed to create a larger narrative of meaning behind their work. For some, such as a rug maker who likened her basement workshop to Picasso’s studio, the stories were imaginary projections. Others created ego-boosting surroundings, like the financial analyst who set up his office to feel like the cockpit of a jet plane. The narratives helped sustain motivation when money got tight or stress levels rose. “When you are on your own, meaning-making feels much more necessary to your work life than when you’re in an organization,” Ashford says. “The more freedom you have in your work, the more you have to do this.”

Ashford’s conclusions seem sensible. If you’re required to show up at an office from nine to five every day and are paid bi-weekly for doing so, this arrangement is, in effect, a constant drip of validation. You’ve accomplished the primary goal set out for you –- attendance –- and been rewarded with a paycheck. A flash lobby and plush office functions the same way, assuring everyone who works there of the meaningfulness of their work. Plus, in an office, you’re surrounded by others who you can measure yourself against. If Stew in the next cube over is a bit of a slacker, every day you can spy him playing solitaire or bungling presentations and know where you stand in the office accomplishment stakes. Web work removes that supportive scaffolding.

Do you think web work demands inner confidence as much as organizational and motivational skills?

Photo courtesy Flickr user anna gutermuth