The Changing Workplace

Sensing an opportunity to attract productive residents to its sparsely populated state, Vermont is offering up to $10,000 to people who want to move there and work remotely. As of June, the Vermont Department of Economic Development had received about 1,000 emails from people who were interested.

The Green Mountain State may be onto something. For most of human history, where you worked dictated where you lived, and where you lived limited the type of work you could do. Today, for an increasing number of jobs, that geographic link has been severed.

The internet has touched nearly every facet of life, but few more so than the workplace. In fact, for many people the workplace is no longer one place. With email, instant messaging, smartphones, Skype for Business, Webex and other connecting technologies, more and more companies are allowing their employees to work from home—even if home is a thousand miles from the corporate headquarters.

Such technologies also have enabled the emergence of the gig economy, in which self-employed freelancers and entrepreneurs are selling their services and creations piecemeal rather than signing on for full-time employment with one company.

In a 2016 Gallup survey of more than 15,000 working adults, 43 percent reported that they had spent at least some time working remotely. Those who do are doing it for longer periods of time than they were in 2012 and are seeing overall benefits.

Sacha Connor ’00 of Berwyn, Pa., was a pioneer in working remotely for The Clorox Company, based in Oakland, Calif.  She and her husband—both Pennsylvania natives—moved back from the San Francisco Bay area in 2010 to be close to family, and her bosses allowed her, on a trial basis, to do her marketing job remotely. Eight years later, she’s still working from Pennsylvania and has been promoted to director of marketing, managing a team of 20.

Connor says along the way she sometimes encountered skepticism that tasks such as brainstorming sessions can be held in cyberspace, but she enjoys proving the skeptics wrong.

“Every time I dig in and say, ‘What needs to be true here, and what plan can we put in place to overcome the perceived barriers that you have on this?’” Connor says. “Most knowledge work and even team-related work can be done virtually.”

The ability to do her job nearly 3,000 miles from the corporate headquarters has allowed Connor to continue to work for a company she loves while her young daughter and son bond with their nearby grandparents.

The option to work remotely may ultimately be a key tool in smashing the glass ceiling. When Fortune magazine announced its list of Fortune 500 companies in May, only 24 of the CEOs were women. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap persists, with women earning 82 percent of what men earned in 2017, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of full-time and part-time American workers. Those disparities are in part driven by more women than men taking time out of the workforce to raise children.

Being able to work from home for periods of time to care for children could enable more women to stay in the workforce and advance, according to Naomi Rothman, associate professor of management at Lehigh.

“If we have these issues of women not being able to make it to the upper echelons of corporate America, part of that reason is they are having work/life-balance issues,” Rothman says. “Flexibility is one of the most important and critical solutions in helping dual-career families. In families in which you have two professions with both parents working, issues of child care become a fundamental problem. Flexibility is one thing that parents say allows them to keep their careers on track.”

Being able to work remotely also allows an employee more autonomy, which improves productivity.

“We know from psychological and organizational behavior research that autonomy is basically one of the most important drivers of intrinsic motivation,” Rothman says. “When people have control over how they go about doing their work and when they do their work and where they do their work, it creates a lot of sense of responsibility over your work. That is very motivating for people.”

The Film Industry Model

Autonomy is one of the aspects that participants in the gig economy like best about it. Drivers for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and freelancers in fields ranging from graphic design and translation to accounting and grant writing tell clients when and how much they can work. Millennials didn’t invent the side hustle, but they’ve taken to the practice of doing side jobs with a gusto.

Upwork, a company that matches freelancers with organizations that need their skills, reported that 57.3 million people freelanced last year. Those numbers are likely to continue to grow. The Upwork study found that 47 percent of working millennials freelance for at least part of their income.

Andrew Ward, professor of management who holds the Charlot and Dennis E. Singleton ’66 chair, envisions a time when many, if not most, Americans will work the way people in Hollywood do.

“Think of the way the motion picture industry works,” he wrote on ilLUminate, the Lehigh Business Blog ( “When a movie is greenlighted by a studio, they bring together hundreds, even thousands, of workers—from the director and stars to the gaffers and the gofers—to make the movie. Once the film is done, they all move on to other projects. Some continue to work together on various projects, sometimes at the same studio, but many do not. That structure is what the future is likely to resemble for many businesses.” 

For workers and companies, that constant churn of meeting and working with different people can increase creativity and innovation and lead to new ventures. Walk into a Starbucks today and you’ll see people holding small meetings, tapping away at their laptops, turning the coffee shop into mini-conference rooms. In New York City and San Francisco, a company called Spacious has taken the idea a step further by contracting with restaurants to take over their dining rooms during the day and leasing out tables to freelancers and others looking for co-working spaces.

The immediate concern for most workers who shift from employment with a company to being a freelancer in the gig economy is loss of employer-provided health insurance and retirement benefits. Many companies have already switched from traditional defined-benefit pensions to defined-contribution plans, such as 40l(k)s. Shifting more of the responsibility for retirement savings onto individuals is likely to continue, Ward says.

But it is the U.S. employer-based health care system that could be a drag on entrepreneurial activity when Americans are competing with entrepreneurs from countries with universal health care systems provided by the government.

“Health care is one of the big factors here,” he says. “It’s so expensive to provide now and has become such a big portion of people’s expenses or the cost of employment for employers, and it’s so critical in terms of a person’s overall well-being. As the economy moves in this direction, it’s something as a society we have to think about.”

Businesses that shed health care costs by outsourcing more work may find valuable employees are quicker to look for jobs elsewhere. Companies will continue to need some long-term employees who have institutional memory and know how the organization should run, Ward says.

Meanwhile, without the stability of the relationship between employer and employee, will workers lose their bargaining power for better wages? The fear is that the gig economy may be best characterized by the old joke about the politician at the banquet who tells his audience that his administration created a million new jobs and a waiter says, “Yeah, and I have three of them.”

Ward says this evolution of the way we work has the potential to exacerbate inequality.

“You are going to get [labor] markets where you have a lot of competition, a lot of supply, and it is going to be difficult for people to maintain their wage rate,” Ward says. “And you’re going to see some people with very specialized skills who can charge a lot. The natural flow of a gig economy like that probably does lead to an increased inequality in incomes and wages across the spectrum.”

That’s one of the reasons some countries like Finland and the Netherlands have explored the idea of a Universal Basic Income, or UBI, paid to adults regardless of whether they work.

The Downside of Technology

The potential to worsen disparities is not the only negative side effect to how the technological revolution has changed the way we work. If you can do your job anywhere, do you ever really leave it?

All that flexibility comes at a cost. Research by Lehigh’s Liuba Belkin, associate professor of management, has found that employees who are expected to answer work emails after hours feel added stress, and that can affect their marriage and family life.

In one study, Belkin, along with William Becker of Virginia Tech and Samantha A. Conroy of Colorado State University, looked at how much time 296 working adults spent each week answering after-hours work emails and how that affected their well-being. They found that employees spend an average of eight hours a week dealing with such emails. But the researchers discovered it wasn’t so much the amount of time on emails that leads to burnout but rather the lack of detachment from their jobs due to high organizational expectations to monitor work emails outside of working hours.

“The main driver was this inability to psychologically detach,” Belkin says.

As she writes in her ilLUminate blog (, one solution is for companies to clarify for employees their policies on whether they are expected to answer emails outside working hours and specify times when they are not.

“Make expectations clear,” Belkin says. “When people don’t know what the norms are, they actually work more just in case so they won’t be considered slackers. And they actually burn out much quicker.

“If the nature of the job requires someone to be on duty, then others should know they don’t have to so they can detach mentally. Or managers themselves should not email people during weekends or during
non-work hours.”

As a result of media attention to the study, Belkin and her co-authors heard from people who complained of the toll that the inability to disconnect from work has on an employee’s family.

“We actually started receiving emails from people saying, ‘Yes, it’s absolutely true, my spouse does this all the time,’” Belkin says.

So in a second study they looked at 134 employees and their significant others, surveying the effects on spouses and partners of employees.

“We did see that organizational expectations to monitor work-related emails outside working hours increased employee anxiety. The employees’ anxiety, in turn, increased their significant other’s anxiety and decreased their health and marital satisfaction,” Belkin says. “It’s the contagion effect.”

In France, companies with more than 50 employees must establish hours when workers should not send or answer emails, giving them the “right to disconnect.”  But Belkin says that’s not necessarily a cure-all.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says. “Prohibiting emails for example, like they did in France, may have negative repercussions for employees’ and their significant others’ well-being as well. Some people need to finish work, and not being able to email may lead to more anxiety.”

Open Space Offices and Teams

Open space offices have roots in the 1960s, but it took until 2005 for art to imitate life with the perfect parody of such workplaces: the long-running television show The Office. As noted, The Office “explored the absurd extremes of the open-office corporate culture at fictional Dunder Mifflin. During the show’s run from 2005-2013, open concept was all the rage. On the sitcom, the open-plan design was essentially the main character—the catalyst for office chaos.”

Trading in cubicles or walled offices for an open-floor plan was supposed to promote collaboration and efficiency. But a study published in July found that open offices led to fewer, rather than more, face-to-face interactions with co-workers.

Harvard Business School Associate Professor Ethan Bernstein and co-author Stephen Turban studied two Fortune 500 companies in their transition to open- space offices from areas where employees had more privacy.  It turns out, people like privacy. Bernstein and Turban reported: “Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly [approximately 70 percent] in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.” 

The researchers noted that often in open offices, employees would don headphones “while appearing to be as busy as possible [since everyone can see them].”

It might be that new employees more so than older generations will have an easier time adapting to open-space offices because they grew up working on team projects in school.

“A lot of younger people now are much more used to those types of environments,” said Lehigh’s Ward. “I think you’re definitely seeing a generational difference there.”

Millennials should also adapt more easily to the changing nature of teams in business. Ozias A. Moore, assistant professor of management, studies emergent forms of team work, or what he calls “multi-teaming” or “dynamic team composition,” in particular how and under what circumstances will working concurrently on multiple teams likely affect individual and team outcomes.

Traditionally, teams in organizations were intact, stable and mutually exclusive. A business brought together employees with different expertise in marketing, finance, advertising and other skills to work on a project. They came to the kickoff of the project and remained on that team for the duration, reporting to a single manager. Today, in response to fast-paced and fluid environments, workers are more likely to be on multiple teams simultaneously under different leaders with members located around the world.

“People are no longer bound to a team or assigned to a team from the beginning of the team’s formation to the end,” Moore says.  “People are joining multiple teams and leaving these teams during various stages of project-driven work. Membership is fluid. People are working on multiple teams and have multiple roles. As a result, multi-teaming has major implications for how individual team members manage overlapping work demands on teams where the membership changes frequently for a variety of reasons.

“You may be a member of a local team here in Bethlehem, but you may also be a part of a team that may involve members globally, working with teams in Japan or South Africa. The dispersed and overlapping nature of your team memberships can have both positive and negative consequences on critical team processes and outcomes.”

All that cross-pollination of expertise can increase knowledge-sharing and innovation as companies are able to more efficiently and effectively use people’s skills. But it can also lead to confusion over who is responsible for what. For example, how does a company evaluate an employee if he or she works on several projects and reports to multiple team leaders?

Multiple teams and fluid environments help to manifest a more inclusive and diverse perspective when you have people with different backgrounds and expertise together, says Moore, who was awarded a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Air Force in 2018 to study dynamic team composition. But benefiting from expertise diversity can be challenging when chain of command is involved.

“Rank and status can hurt knowledge sharing,” Moore says. “Team leaders may have to emphasize: ‘Outside this room, rank matters. But when we’re on this team, sitting around this table, we’re team members.’ But how do you separate those two? People may have more apprehension about sharing ideas.”

Like many employment trends, dynamic team composition brings a host of challenges to the workplace that previous generations could not have envisioned.

As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “The only thing that is constant is change.”  You can look that up on the internet.

Story by Margie Peterson

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