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The University of Southampton
Web Science Institute

Exploring the Future of Work: The Effects of Distributed Work on Social Capital and Innovation

Overview

The Web continues to drive major changes in working practices. Remote working practices enabled by the Web (email, corporate file stores, video conference, online chat) are now commonplace. Some people occasionally work from home, and others are entirely location independent, such as web-based freelancers. The growing number of freelance professionals provides an emerging opportunity to create on-demand project teams. The Stanford ‘Flash Teams’ project has demonstrated the potential to coordinate the development of a smartphone app, a computer game and an online course through their IT platform. This has the potential to shift the boundaries of organisations coordinating complex innovation projects. However, distributed working can cause problems with productivity and innovation. Managers of complex projects are advised to encourage face to face communication and co-location. UK office workers feel less productive at home compared with at their desk. In contrast, recent research has also shown that call centre employees can be more productive when they work from home. These contrasting findings make sense if we consider social capital as a key mechanism behind the coordination of complex projects. Social capital, as a connected fabric of social relations, improves the capacity of firms to innovate. Distributed work environments would be expected to reduce social capital, and innovation capacity. To what extent can improved communication tools overcome this? Is this only a problem for complex projects? This project begins to explore the link between distributed working, social capital and innovation capability through a pilot case study in a distributed engineering team.

Staff

Principal Investigator: David Baxter, Southampton Business School (SBS)

Co-Investigator: Dr Lisa Harris, Southampton Business School (SBS)

Co-Investigator: Dr Rebecca Taylor, Social Sciences

Report

View the report.

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