Before delving into Mass Career Customization, I’d like to address a paper titled The Hidden Work In Virtual Work (click to download). It describes the high personal costs some remote workers have borne while trying to achieve work-life balance and maintain professional connections. I imagine that this paper can scare many away from the prospect of telework. However, note the limitations of this study. Like any good researcher, Heimrich Schwartz describes the methodology for collecting data. This study was based on information gathered from twenty-three informants who were recruited from the researchers’ social network. Therefore, like most qualitative studies, this study has a low sample size. Furthermore, participants were not randomly selected. Having drawn from their own personal network, participants are more likely to share similarities than if drawn from a pool that represents all remote workers. It is quite possible that their recruitment method did not capture the experiences of successful remote workers who thrive under this working condition.
There is no discounting the fact that not everyone can or wants to work remotely, and it’s important to point out all the problems – whether potential or real. I have not found any telework advocates who think that everyone should work this way. In fact, they make it clear that this is a choice and is contingent upon an individual’s ability to work and keep a balanced life in this arrangement. I envision that determination as to who becomes a teleworker or not is, in large part, a self-selection process as people, through both good and bad experiences, choose their occupation based on their likes and dislikes which are a function of their own traits and characteristics. Some jobs can be performed remotely while others can’t. Many telework advocates are also clear that management needs to look out for those who are struggling and provide a way to transition back to the office if necessary. Thus, it is important to bring attention to cases so that such disastrous situations can be prevented or resolved. As it turns out, possible solutions are not far behind.
Upon reading Mass Career Customization by Cathleen Benko and Anne Weisberg of Deloitte LLP, I realized that we may yet find ways to support people who want to work remotely but struggle at it. In fact, the authors describe how this system, which gives employees control over multiple facets of their job, can be used in conjunction with telework. With Mass Career Customization (MCC) employees can adjust the pace, workload, location/schedule, and role according to their needs throughout their career. This book takes you through the process of implementing MCC (from how to make a business case for it and get buy-in from key people in the organization to running it) and provides detailed case studies of a few organizations that have successfully incorporated it. Organizations enjoy benefits such as improved recruitment and retention of talent, increased levels of employee satisfaction and engagement, and a clear, honest account of human capital resources.
Benko and Weisberg point out how much more realistic it is to view people’s investments in their career as a sine wave. During the course of life there are times when personal or family needs predominate. At other times, people are more career driven. In contrast to the traditional family structure where men worked 40 hours a week while women spent all of their time taking care of the home, children, and other non-work related duties, the vast majority now have to juggle work and family resulting in this ebb and flow of investment in career. Thus, most organizations are still geared towards a way of life that has all but vanished. This change in family structure, shortage of skilled knowledge workers, increased number of women in the workforce, nontraditional expectations of Generation X and Y workers, and impact of technology have converged. To thrive, organizations would do best to accommodate by incorporating a more flexible system. The authors thoroughly explain why MCC is superior to current flexible work arrangements (FWA). FWAs fail to serve employees’ needs because they are point, rather than systemic, solutions. For example, an employee goes on maternity leave and then is expected to work the same way she did prior to her leave of absence. Under MCC, this change in her life would still be considered so that she has the option to dial down on various aspects of her job as needed. That said, the authors point out that MCC is about more than work-life balance; it’s about career-life fit.
Back to the issue of cases in which telework destroyed work-life balance for some workers. By pinpointing such problems telework critics have provided a great service because, upon realizing these problems, we can develop appropriate solutions. Although people who know me would describe me as very self-disciplined and great at maintaining strong boundaries, I have experienced how unpleasant it can be for work and life to bleed into each other myself (having contrasted my experiences managing the pace and workload at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral level), so I am quite sympathetic to the people in Shwartz’s study. It dawned on me, however, that even for self-disciplined people, increasing pace or workload makes it more difficult to separate work and life. At some point, even the most self-disciplined would suffer. If there is a valuable employee who wants to work remotely but handles it better at some point lower than 100% pace or workload AND does not require or want to be fully dialed up, then why not consider it?
It is important to discuss, debate, and be wary of any way our creations might turn on us. At this point however, marching us all back into Industrial Age workplace practices does not sound like a viable option. There are already people thriving as remote workers. With some imagination and innovation, we may well come up with systems to support those who want to work remotely but struggle with it. The great plethora of ideas and inventions we have developed to solve our problems throughout the history of mankind never ceases to amaze me. Thus, I am quite optimistic that we can troubleshoot the problems Shwartz brought up. In closing, here is my favorite quote from Mass Career Customization (page 148): We tend to walk into the future backward, perhaps wanting to go in a new direction but not realizing that we are defining the new direction relative to our past experiences.