Can software developers be trusted to work from home?

Technology makes it possible for knowledge workers like software developers to work from home and/or to work flexitime. For employees, this comes with benefits such as cost savings, convenience, a better work-life balance and less rigidity.

But employers are asking: Can we trust these employees do an honest day’s work? Will they hold themselves accountable for their outputs? Won’t we lose control over our employees?

The benefits of flexible work arrangements (FWAs) – such as flexitime (working flexible hours) and telecommuting (working from home) – have been confirmed by most researchers. However, research on the outcomes of FWAs is somewhat inconclusive and sometimes contradicting, both within and across developed and emerging economies. Also, most of the research on FWAs has been conducted in the developed economies of Western countries. What, then, should employers in an emerging economy like that of South Africa take into account when considering FWAs?

Looking at flexible work arrangements in emerging economies

Globally, the software development industry is known for its flexible work arrangements. Indeed, it has been shown that FWAs can lead to high performance and increased engagement.

Can employers in a country such as South African confidently offer workers like software developers more leeway when it comes to work arrangements? In this study, we took a closer look at the use and outcomes of two FWAs – flexible working hours and telecommuting – among software developers in South Africa.

What does research on this topic say?

We started off by conducting a literature review to gain a better understanding of flexible work arrangements. This is what we found:
  • Employees are increasingly seeking FWAs: The internet and information and communication technology are making new work arrangements possible. Today’s workforce want more freedom of choice and more flexibly in terms of when and where they work. The drivers behind the growth in FWAs include employees’ need for better work-life balance, a drive to resolve family-work conflict, and a desire to reduce the time ‘wasted’ in commuting. Providing the experience of choice and flexibility at work engages employees psychologically. Therefore, employers worldwide are increasingly adopting FWAs as a way to retain talented employees and enhance competitiveness.
  • FWAs mostly yield positive benefits: Research indicates that both organisations and employees find flexible work arrangements attractive. Organisations value outcomes such as reduced turnover rates, lower absenteeism, increased loyalty and productivity, and more positive work attitudes. Similarly, employees value more balance between work and family demands, less workload stress and improved quality of work life. Yet, not all organisations are comfortable with such arrangements, and neither is it a solution for all workplace problems. Empirical results on the relationship between FWAs and well-being are somewhat inconclusive and sometimes contradicting. For instance, it was found that teleworking can promote isolation, lead to a perceived lack of organisational support, increase stress as work and home life become inseparable, and reduce well-being through increased workload.
  • Flexible work arrangements are not the same in all sociocultural contexts: Most research on FWAs has been conducted in Western countries. Yet, several studies have shown that the use and outcomes of FWAs can differ significantly across nations. Hence, there is a need to investigate the use and outcomes of FWAs in specific countries and economies.
  • Flexible work arrangements are valued in South Africa: It has been shown that skilled South African workers value the opportunity to make use of FWAs. Research has also shown that in South Africa, which has an emerging economy, FWAs are associated with increased loyalty, decreased stress, less time spent on commuting, and increased job satisfaction and work-life balance. FWAs in this country have been found to be particularly effective in emerging multinational companies. It therefore appears that FWAs would render positive outcomes for South African employees.
  • Software developers in South Africa will embrace FWAs: Some researchers have argued that service-oriented and private, high-tech organisations have more flexibility than manufacturing organisations, and are thus better able to accommodate FWAs. South Africa has a particular competitive advantage in the fast-growing software development market. However, its growth is inhibited by the lack of skills and shortage of software developers. Many software development firms are small and medium-sized private enterprises, typically lacking the resources to compete with larger firms on salaries. Offering benefits such as FWAs can therefore help to attract and retain employees with sought-after skills. Access to a fast and reliable internet connection is a prerequisite for effective telecommuting. This is not a problem in most developed economies but it can be in emerging economies. However, even in emerging economies, the IT environment is suited for telecommuting because these workers usually have better access to the internet than workers in other industries. Overall, it seems reasonable to expect that FWAs will be generally available to these employees and that they will gladly make use thereof.
  • Flexible work arrangements can strengthen employee engagement: The relationship between FWAs and employee engagement is of particular interest in South Africa where employee engagement tends to be one of the lowest globally. Engagement is seen as a strong predictor of positive work outcomes such as high performance and low turnover intentions, high morale, enhanced commitment and involvement, and increased job satisfaction, commitment and productivity. Psychologically, FWAs create an empowering sense of personal freedom and autonomy with regard to structuring one’s work and time, supported by an encouraging signal of being cared for by the organisation. Physiologically, FWAs allow workers to work from anywhere, and at times that suit their circumstances. With FWAs pervasive in the software development industry globally, and correlations between FWAs and engagement performance confirmed by research, it can be argued that South African software developers who make use of FWAs are likely to measure higher on engagement and performance outcomes than those who do not.

How was this research conducted?

The study set out to test four hypotheses:
  • FWAs are generally available to South African software developers, and they do make substantive use of FWAs.
  • South African software developers perceive FWAs as beneficial (helpful and advantageous).
  • South African software developers who make use of FWAs are more engaged than those who do not make use of it.
  • South African software developers who make use of FWAs perform better than those who do not make use of it.
An anonymous web-based survey was used to find out how South African software developers perceive flexible work arrangements. A sample of 260 respondents provided information on the use of FWAs, whether they found these arrangements beneficial, and how FWAs correlated with their tenure, working hours, engagement and performance.

The respondents represented 86 companies, which were mostly SMEs. Most of the respondents were male (89%) and were 30 to 39 years old, followed by those younger than 30 years. Their tenure at their current employers was fairly short at 5.7 years, although this is much longer than the 1.9 for medium-sized and 1.5 years for small software development companies in the USA.

What did the study find?

  • The employees worked longer hours than the norm: The software developers in this sample tended to work longer than the 40-hour week norm in South Africa, with the mean being 45.3 hours a week. Although the mean value is higher than the norm, it is not unexpected, as it is common for highly skilled workers in South Africa to work extra time.
  • They have access to both flexitime and telecommuting: Most of the respondents (78.6%) indicated that they have access to both flexitime and telecommuting, and most of them (81.6%) actually made use of both options.
  • They saw FWA as beneficial: The respondents said FWAs were beneficial to themselves (or would be if they had access to it). Similarly, most respondents regarded FWAs as beneficial to companies (or would be if such arrangements were provided).
  • Those who used FWAs performed better than those who did not use FWAs: Most respondents indicated high perceptions of their performance reviews (those who used and did not use FWAs combined). The respondents who made use of FWAs reported significantly higher perceived performance than those who did not. This result provides support for hypothesis 3 – South African software developers who use FWAs are more engaged than those who do not make use of it, and hypothesis 4 – local software developers who make use of FWAs experience higher performance outcomes than those not using FWAs.

The link between FWAs, engagement and performance

The relationship between FWAs and engagement and performance was also assessed for respondents who made use of FWAs. The strongest relationship was between the use of FWAs and engagement, which confirms hypothesis 3. The second strongest relationship was between engagement and performance.

Although the correlations were regarded as weak and of less practical value, even if statistically significant, one can argue that the correlation between performance and the use of FWAs may indeed have some practical value. The reason for this is that profit margins of software development companies are sensitive to slight changes in the performance of software developers. This means that even small changes can have a direct impact on output. Based on this reason, hypothesis 4 is supported, but with caution.

What does your organisation need to know about flexible work arrangements?

This study looked at how a group of software developers in South Africa experienced flexible work arrangements – specifically flexitime and telecommuting. It is possible that these outcomes can also be beneficial to companies in the same, and other, industries:
  • FWAs work for the local software development industry: The study found that software development companies in South Africa do offer FWAs to their employees and that their software developers make use of this. It was also found that FWAs contributed to improved engagement and performance, and that engagement is associated positively with performance – the same as in developed economies.
  • Companies can trust their software developers to work from home: This study did not find a statistically significant difference in the working hours of developers who made use of FWAs compared to those who worked at the office, although the former indicated more working hours per week on average. This says employers do not have to be concerned that less control over employees who work from home or who work flexitime will lead to fewer hours of work.
  • The combination of flexitime and telecommuting works better: The results showed that the correlations of FWAs with engagement and performance are stronger when telecommuting and flexible hours are used in combination. This confirms previous research that specific FWAs are less effective when used in isolation.

Flexible work arrangements can enable companies to recruit from a much larger talent pool.
  • Engagement is important: The study confirmed a positive link between FWAs and engagement. With employee engagement generally a strong predictor of performance and many other positive work outcomes, as was found by other research, even slight increases in developers’ engagement are important to competitive software developing entities.
  • It is worth trying out FWAs: FWAs can yield positive work outcomes, and should be encouraged where practical and appropriate. It was recommended that employers should at least consider implementing flexitime and telecommuting. This recommendation does not only apply to South African organisations in the software development industry, but perhaps also to other industries and other emerging economies as well.
  • Recruit from a bigger talent pool: Flexible work arrangements can enable companies to recruit from a much larger talent pool. Such arrangements can reduce the high costs associated with office space constraints and relocation.
  • Every bit helps: This study confirmed the importance of FWAs for software development firms in South Africa – a fast-growing sector that suffers from chronic skills shortages. In this industry, perhaps more so than in other industries, the output of developers directly affects products or services.
Workplace flexibility offers a way to address many workplace concerns and to improve individual and organisational functioning. The results confirmed that in South Africa’s emerging economy, outcomes of FWAs do not necessarily differ from those in more developed economies. This finding is important in the light of the critical shortage of software developers, and the high-pressure environment and competitive context in which they work.

The combination of flexitime and telecommuting works better than only flexitime or only telecommuting.

To conclude, the benefits of flexible work arrangements are significant, whereas the risk appears to be low. South African software development employers who are still considering FWAs can probably implement such arrangements with confidence and are likely to receive support from their staff.

This article is based on the South African Journal of Human Resource Management'article titled ‘To flex or not to flex? Flexible work arrangements amongst software developers in an emerging economy’. It is written by Wilhelm Conradie and Prof Mias de Klerk. Find the original article here. Wilhelm Conradie is an MBA alumnus of USB. Prof Mias de Klerk is head of Research at USB. He is a professor in Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at USB, and Director of USB’s Centre for Responsible Leadership Studies (Africa).

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