ABSTRACT This essay is based on an autoethnographic account of a manager of a small
professional services consultancy during the Covid-19 lockdown measures. Concepts
explored include knowledge workers, workplace productivity and the notion of the ideal
worker. To analyse these concepts the theoretical lens of Personal-Professional
Boundary Theory and Role Theory were applied.
GSBS6040 Human Resource Management
Exploring the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ in the
un-ideal circumstances of Covid-19:
How has mandated work from home impacted employees
in terms of productivity and wellbeing, in the context of the ideal worker?
In the first few months of 2020, a newly discovered virus has become a global pandemic
with catastrophic societal and financial consequences. To prevent the spread of the
disease strict lockdown provisions have been implemented, which in Australia, have had
a positive affect to ‘flatten the curve’ and reduce infection rates. However, these same
provisions are having a significant and adverse impact on Australia’s economy and the
way in which business is conducted.
Lockdown has required people to self-isolate and carry on their employment from home,
challenging the notion of the ‘ideal worker’, and workplace productivity. The ‘ideal worker’
is a widely understood academic construct to describe the perfect employee. (Reid, 2015;
Wilk, 2015; Dumas, & Sanchez-Burks, 2015; Peters, & Blomme, 2019; Thomason &
Williams, 2020) Davies and Frink (2014) framed the ‘ideal worker’ as one who is devoted
single-mindedly to the good of their employer, and is not distracted by any personal
responsibilities, such as a family.
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This essay focuses on knowledge workers, defined as professionals who meet their job
outcomes primarily through the use of their knowledge and expertise. (Nankervis, Baird,
Coffey & Shields, 2020) Flexible work arrangements include flexibility in scheduling
known as flexi-time, flexibility in location such as tele-homeworking or ‘Work from Home’
(WfH), and part-time work, being flexibility in length of work in a week. (Shagvaliyeva &
The purpose of this essay is to examine these key concepts by presenting and analysing
an authoethnographic account of the author’s experience, in the human resource
management (HRM) of employees during the Covid-19 health crisis. Autoethnography is
a qualitative research methodology that permits “the author to write in a highly
personalized style, drawing on his or her experience to extend understanding about a
societal phenomenon.” (Wall, 2006. pp 146) Using this approach, the author’s experience
as the manager of a small professional services consultancy impacted by the changes in
workplace, is used to examine the notion of the ideal worker. The players in the account
include the employees, the author’s boss, and the author themself. The staff are diverse,
with a range of professional experience from graduate to senior level, as well as differing
personal situations, including young singles, married, and married with school age
children. Both the author and her husband have full time jobs and parent four kids in high
school and primary school. The business has part-time staff but has not adopted any
other form of flexible work. However, lockdown measures have meant employees have
been working from home resulting in the blurring of work and home life. In this regard, the
following question explored: How has mandated work from home impacted employees in
terms of productivity and wellbeing, in the context of the ideal worker?
The essay will firstly introduce the theoretical concept of the ideal worker, before
presenting the autoethnographic account. From there the theories of personalprofessional boundary and role theory are examined. In reflecting upon this analysis some
observations that provide opportunity to change business practices moving forward, are
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The notion of the “ideal worker” was established by the industrial revolution of the 19th
century with its focus on employee productivity and separation of work and home, (Davies
& Frink, 2014; Dumas & Sanchez-Burks, 2015) and later expanded to the white-collar
‘factory’, the corporate office, in the early 20th century embodied by the white middle-class
family man with a stay-at home wife. (Davies & Frink, 2014) The ideal worker norm still
prevails, with technology now sanctioning the ideal worker to be available ‘twenty-four
seven’, with an employee’s productivity and commitment adjudicated by the total hours
that they spend at the workplace. (Wilk, 2016)
Employees who adhere to the norm of the ideal worker are richly rewarded, with
advancement and accolades, particularly for people in professional and managerial jobs.
(Reid, 2015) Conversely, those who oppose this norm often experience workplace
penalties such as less interesting work, negatively biased performance reviews,
professional stigma, and discrimination, with limits on organisational rewards, such as
pay and promotion. (Wilk, 2015; Wynn & Hamid Rao, 2020)
Paradoxically, and in an effort to attract, recruit, and retain high quality staff, many
workplaces have adopted flexible work policies. (Shagvaliyeva & Yazdanifard, 2014)
Flexible work policies increase work life performance for employees, provide greater
potential for gender equality, lower employee turnover and increase organisational
commitment, leading to increased productivity and profitability (Peters & Blomme, 2019;
Shagvaliyeva & Yazdanifard, 2014) However, given the potential repercussions, some
employees fear utilising flexible work opportunities. (Wynn & Hamid Rao, 2020) Hence
the co-existence of flexibility policies and the ideal worker norm persists, both pushing for
and against the integration of the personal and the professional. (Duamz & SanchezBurks, 2015)
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In analysing the author’s dual roles of seeking to maintain employee productivity and
managing the health and wellbeing of the workforce during WfH, the notion of the ideal
worker and the optimistic idealism of flexibility is explored.
MANAGING A TEAM DURING COVID-19: AN AUTOETHNOGRAPHIC ACCOUNT
The following authoethnographic account relates to three situations that correlate to the
notion of the ideal worker as impacted by the effects of the Covid-19 virus health crisis.
Situation 1: Worry – Friday 16th March 2020
I can’t believe how quickly the situation relating to corona has moved from mildly
inconvenient to major economic upheaval. In the last week, my boss reluctantly cancelled
the company networking event and we had a practice using the video conferencing
software, that we’d installed for ages, but never bothered to learn how to use.
It wasn’t until later in the week, after a major client called advising us that all spending
has been put on hold, that I realised things were serious. I sat down with my boss to look
at the company’s cashflow, future pipeline of work and expenses. After going through the
spreadsheets, we came up with a plan to reduce costs, understand our breakeven point
and identify minimum productivity targets. The next job was to communicate to staff the
changes to operational budgets, including no paid training and no overtime.
Situation 2: Action – Friday 27th March 2020
Given the Prime Minster’s announcement regarding the introduction of Stage 1 social
distancing measures, the decision was made on Monday that staff will work from home
Having moved to cloud-based practice management software a year ago, we had the
ability to work remotely, however it has never been needed, tested nor particularly
encouraged. This also meant we had no real protocols in place for such a scenario.
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Consequently, I was tasked with writing a work from home policy and briefing staff on
what would happen next.
There are so many aspects of the workplace that have always appeared to be contingent
on the physical location or having face to face interactions. There are issues such as
supervision, maintaining levels of service, and reliability of technology to consider. Our
jobs are mostly ‘desk jobs’, meaning that ergonomics and workspace set up was also
important. What about colleague collaboration, or even incidental communication that can
help to clarify thinking or just break up the work day. In the end I settled on three headings:
‘Expectations of Staff’, ‘Communication’, and ‘Staying Healthy’. By Wednesday, everyone
had raided the stationery cupboard and packed up their desks, taking their laptops,
monitors, favourite desk plant, and files and headed home to the brave new world of ‘work
from home’ (WfH).
In my own home, the living room has been turned into an open plan office, school room
dance studio and breakout space to accommodate WfH, home school and the
continuation of extra-curricular activities. My son commented that “he couldn’t possibly
be expected to do on-line school work in the same room as his entire family”.
Situation 3: Routine – Thursday 11 April 2020
The work week has settled into a new ‘normal’ routine. The daily morning video call allows
everyone to visually connect with each other and helps to switch gears from home to work,
while still being ‘at work, at home’. I use this time to ensure my staff have a plan for their
day, can update me on progress of projects and can discuss any issues or problems.
Some staff members are getting up early to do some hours prior to their kids getting up
or working later to catch up on what wasn’t completed during the day. Everyone is
becoming proficient at video conferencing, even the boss, using it for formal team
meetings, discussion with external clients as well as informal discussion and working
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Lastly, to replicate some of the normal office interaction, we have organised a weekly
lunchtime WfH activity, making light use of our technology. We have played various
quizzes, ‘Guess the baby photo’, and ‘Whose house is that’. These fun, personal and
slightly competitive activities have been inspired, copied, and repeated by other
The experience of living and working through the effects of Covid-19 and the ensuing
economic downturn, is ongoing. Communication is sometimes a bit ‘hit and miss’ with
some confusion around expectations and clarity of instructions. In terms of productivity I
was initially worried that formal daily reporting would be onerous, having never needed
such a structured approach when we were working face to face in the office. However,
I’ve observed that this has provided opportunity for individuals to become more selfdirected, have greater independence and initiative, and less reliance on supervisors to
direct next steps in a project.
Further, the complete blurring of work and home has potentially provided an opportunity
for a new openness. We now admire people’s house plants, take an interest in evidence
of hobbies displayed in homes, and enthusiastically provide suggestions to a colleague’s
kindergarten child as they carry out a ‘treasure hunt’ in the background of a meeting.
Despite physical distance, there does seem to be a growing bond and attachment
between team members.
The changing workforce, particularly in economies such as the USA and Australia has
seen the rise of the knowledge worker; those who concentrate on open ended and
complex problem solving. Unlike blue collar jobs, knowledge work is not tied to a specific
location, which means work can be done outside of a traditional workplace. (Duamz &
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Despite WfH being an established HR concept and typically offered as part of a flexible
work policy there does not appear to have been any extensive take up, including at the
author’s workplace. Before lockdown measures were implemented in the USA, it was
estimated that only 3.6% of the employee workforce worked from home, even though
56% held a job that is compatible with remote work. (Lister, 2020).
Within the context of mandated WfH, the authors experience and observations highlight
several dynamics of the ideal worker norm that can be examined through the perspectives
of personal-professional boundary theory (boundary theory) and role theory. These
theoretical perspectives provide insight into how individuals manage their personal and
professional responsibilities, and what employers can do to support and sustain a
productive, happy, and healthy workforce.
The study of personal-professional boundary theory (boundary theory) has developed in
parallel with the notion of the ideal worker. (Duamz & Sanchez-Burks, 2015) Boundary
theory is concerned with the continuum between segmentation and integration, where
integration of roles provides flexibility and simplicity in moving between the personal and
professional realms. (Duamz & Sanchez-Burks, 2015). Flexibility is a key concept in
implementing boundary theory. For example, flexibility provided by WfH arrangements
allows an individual to exercise control over their work location and therefore achieve
successful outcomes for their employers, and themselves, in both personal and
Segregation on the other hand addresses the adverse consequences associated with
boundary blurring. Segregation helps to address the knowledge worker’s conundrum with
regards to productivity. Unlike measuring units of production in a blue collar workplace,
managers cannot easily or directly quantify the work output or involvement of knowledge
workers. Instead both employers and employees look to hours worked as an indicator of
productivity and commitment (Perlow, 1998). This is turn reifies the ideal worker norm.
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In a study examining how managers control employees work hours, Perlow (1998) refers
to ‘boundary control’ as the manager’s ability to divide their employees time between their
personal and professional domains. In more recent literature, Peters & Bloome (2019)
use the term to describe elite workers perception of having self-control over where, when,
and how to work. Researchers have found that knowledge workers were less likely to
access flexibility policies, and instead rely on themselves to manage work – life
challenges. (Wynn & Hamid Rao, 2020) In a similar vein, the referencing of home
responsibilities in the workplace is viewed as ‘unprofessional’, affirming that the traditional
perspective that separation is the appropriate response to managing responsibilities.
(Duamz & Sanchez-Burks, 2015)
A second theory worth considering in the discussion of the ideal worker in a WfH context,
is role theory. Duamz & Sanchez-Burks, (2015) note that role theory and specifically the
separation of roles can help employees to successfully navigate their multiple roles and
identities. A central assertion of role theory is that the observation of separate physical
space and dedicated time to specific roles, reduces an individual’s role conflict and
improves performance. Duamz & Sanchez-Burks (2015) concluded that keeping roles
separate appeared to ameliorate the adverse physiological outcomes of stress,
depression, and internal conflict of personal and professional responsibilities. Physical
presence in an independent workplace such as a corporate office both supports the ideal
worker norm from an employer perspective and supports an employee’s strategy to
separate work and non-work roles.
However, application of segregation in boundary theory or separation of roles in role
theory, was clearly impossible for staff working from home, particularly those also
managing children. As Thomason & Williams expressed “The Covid-19 crisis has
shoved work and home lives under the same roof for many families like ours, and the
struggle to manage it all is now visible to peers and bosses.” (2020 pp 1) Even though
WfH has dissolved traditional time-use patterns and work locations, the need to negotiate
these with both colleagues and managers at work, and family members at home has
continued. (Peters & Bloome, 2019) As observed by the author, this resulted in adoption
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of various supplementary boundary management strategies by employees, such as
getting up early to do work and avoid conflict with family time, as well as acceptance by
the employer of less than ideal circumstances within which to run the business, such as
the interruption of meetings.
Having applied the theoretical lens of boundary theory and role theory to the notion of the
ideal worker, several key insights now become apparent from the author’s observation in
terms of positive HR activities during mandated WfH. These include staying connected to
the workforce to maintain productivity and wellbeing and creating a culture that permits
role conflict and encourages integration in terms of boundary theory. These insights also
provide some further food for thought in terms of management implications, as
businesses re-open in the post-Covid-19 phase.
Firstly, if it is accepted that it is an employer’s role to “create the wellness workplace
(stress-free and trust based environment) for employees in order to increase their
productivity”, (Shagvaliyeva & Yazdanifard, 2014. pp 21) then HR practices that focus on
employee wellbeing will be an integral part of a business’s strategy. In the author’s
experience, this was clearly a strong value of the company and therefore reflected in the
Work from Home Policy and the efforts to maintain routine communication. Hubert, in
observing business leaders during the Covid-19 crisis noted that “they’re trying hard to
create connection and support the mental health of their workers. They have
communicated with their employees in ongoing, frequent, transparent, and honest ways,
seeking out approaches with a human touch — using video rather than just written
communication, establishing office hours, instituting a regular coffee time or happy hour,
and providing direct access to leaders and colleagues.”
The universality of the lockdown measures has meant that there was no façade of choice
or sense of control in selecting WfH as a flexible work option. The actual and perceived
ability to manage work life conflict was removed, with typical strategies used by
employees to balance work and personal / family needs such as assistance with domestic
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chores, on-line grocery deliveries, child care options, even going to restaurants for meals
or the gym for exercise, were no longer available.
This leads to a second managerial implication concerning the permissibility of role conflict.
Researchers have found that initiatives that encourage the expression of each
employee’s individual personality have been found to successfully build a common
identity among a demographically diverse workforce. (Duamz & Sanchez-Burks, 2015) In
this way that the ‘Guess whose House it is’ game provided opportunity for employees to
share their homes, with the inclusion of personal items in the workplace revealing
common interest and experience among colleagues to build relationships. (Dumas and
Sanchez-Burks, 2015) Tews, Michael and Allen (2014) found that one of the key means
through which fun influences retention is by facilitating the development of high-quality
This has also demonstrated the successful use of technology to support relationship
building, without the need to be physically present. It has also proved that being physically
present at all meetings is not required which has implications for reducing travel time and
costs and improving productivity. However, newfound ability to be constantly connected
means we need to be working smarter (Wilk, 2016). This may mean different measures
of productivity other than face time in the office. One example could be the adoption of
results only work environment (ROWE) the HR strategy which measures performance
based output not hours (Conlin, 2006) and where the physical office is considered a tool
to get the work done.
The lockdown measures imposed in response to the COVID-19 health crisis has provided
an ideal opportunity to experiment with flexible work policies. This essay has sought to
explore, develop, and broaden the notion of the ideal worker through the examination of
various theories and bodies of research including boundary theory and role theory.
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The notion of the ideal worker needing to be physically present to be productive has been
disproven, however the analysis above has shown that boundary management, role
conflict and developing co-worker relationships were challenged, not so much by WfH
itself, but by the extreme circumstances of lockdown measures. This acknowledges that
while knowledge workers may not need to be physically present in the workplace, they
may appreciate going to the workplace.
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ABSTRACT This essay is based on an autoethnographic account of a manager of a small