Remote work and mobile technologies: between autonomy and invisible control

April 24, 2017

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Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte

Professor Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte

Based on an interview with Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte on her paper “An Ethical Perspective on Emerging Forms of Ubiquitous IT-Based Control” (The Journal of Business Ethics 2015).

Modern technologies are changing the traditional office environment. The fact that work can now be done anywhere at any time has significant implications for employee work-life balance. New research by Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte explores the ethical implications of these changes and how the associated increase in autonomy might lead to a new implicit form of control.


Biography

Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte is Researcher at CNRS (the French National Center for Scientific Research) and Professor of Management Information Systems at the IÉSEG School of Management. She received her PhD in Management Sciences from the University of Paris Dauphine. Her research focuses on the new forms of work, collaboration, management and control emerging from the use of information technology in modern organizations.


Methodology

As part of a large study on the use of mobile technologies in the workplace, Leclercq-Vandelannoitte interviewed about one hundred employees and managers, between 2008-2010. They were encouraged to expand on their thoughts relating to the impact of professional technology use on their work and personal life. Qualitative analysis of the interviews was carried out via the NVivo software package.


Modern technologies are now ubiquitous in the workplace, and the way in which work is done is changing. We can work outside the office, communicate, collaborate and have access to information through technology at a distance. New forms of work emerge, inversing old logics of gathering workers around production tools.

Work has always been structured around the notions of space and time, but today, the role of technology has been inversed: it directly brings work to workers. Employees (depending on the nature of their job, business sector, and function) can work outside the collective and centralized spaces of their company. These technologies induce a breach in the way we consider and live the working space and time; the fact of not being present does not mean being absent any more.

The ‘de-spatialization’ of work, increasing ‘flexibility’ of working hours, and dispersal of the workforce (through an increasing multi-localization) enabled by these technologies, break down the classic organizational boundaries. The triple unity that has always been constitutive of organizations (unity of space, time and action) has shattered. This unprecedented context presents a huge challenge for management, which does not rely on a shared context of action and visibility any more. Furthermore, this context raises very sensitive questions of coordination, trust and control. These technologies indeed also mean that employees can now be contacted at times and in spaces that were once private, which changes how they are managed. Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte identifies a number of ethical concerns/questions around employee wellbeing related to the increased use of these technologies.

Invisible control?
Enabled by ubiquitous technologies such as smartphones and laptops, coupled to cloud computing, telecommuting, virtual conferences, digital nomadism and remote working are becoming increasingly commonplace. These technologies appear as tools to empower employees and give them more autonomy and flexibility, and a distant access to information.

However, Leclercq-Vandelannoitte found that these technologies can also be potentially problematic: “These technologies – used to aid us at work – have created a blur in the boundaries between our professional and personal life, and can enable management to exert an implicit and invisible form of control over their employees, for example in relation to their engagement”.

“Even if they are not conceived as monitoring tools, these technologies can be used to exert an indirect form of ‘free control’, over those they cannot see directly (through a reinforcement of self-control for example),” she adds. It is not rare to see employees searching to demonstrate their ‘commitment’ to management  (for example by connecting during out-of-office hours, or over-signaling their online presence).

Ambivalent use of IT
Leclercq-Vandelannoitte noticed a certain ambivalence towards the use of mobile IT at work. Some aspects of these technologies are contradictory. For example, they make communication and access to information easier, which increases employee autonomy; but on the other hand, through the usages they develop and the behavioral norms that emerge, employees co-construct new constraints (implicit norms of permanent availability and responsiveness).

Leclercq-Vandelannoitte explains “Employees want to show they are ‘connected’ at specific moments to prove that they are professional, reliable and trustworthy, all the more when they work at distance and are not visible”. It is hard to denounce or challenge such a – largely implicit and invisible – form of control, of which employees are not always aware.

Ethical issues
To understand how these concerns are perceived in the workplace, Leclercq-Vandelannoitte analyzed interviews during a large study on the use of ubiquitous mobile technologies in the workplace. Employees reported that it was their own choice or strategy to use technology in ways that might invade their personal lives. “Such uses address real expectations they have in their social life (the power to self-organize, the choice of moments, or the increase in mobility)”, she adds, even if they recognize some pressure and sense of urgency. This really raises questions over the responsibilities and intentions of different actors in the development of these emerging forms of control. “The context is evolving, in particular with the workers new ‘right to disconnect’ in France, but for a long time management has not taken into consideration the human, social and ethical implications of the use of these technologies at work”, explains Leclercq-Vandelannoitte.


Practical applications

“Managers and employers should be aware of the potential ethical implications of these new forms of work and ubiquitous technology use and, in response, take action to regulate it,” Leclercq-Vandelannoitte says. These evolutions call for a better management of this ‘de-spatialization’ of work through a deep transformation of modes of control (towards management by objectives for example), which should necessarily be coupled to the development of trust-based hierarchical relationships. To that end, and despite difficulties, it is necessary to overcome organizational rigidities. Employees also need to understand the importance of regulating technology for their overall wellbeing and work-life balance”, even if there is increasingly an overlap between professional and personal boundaries (in terms of both time and space).


 

IÉSEG