After the presentation, I reviewed the productivity research. In the early days of COVID-19, working from home looked like a win-win. Studies of when people log on and off have suggested that many maintain or even increase hours.
A 2020 survey of U.S. office workers found that respondents said managers and subordinates were more productive.
But the picture has since become more nuanced. A study of 10,000 skilled professionals at a large Asian tech firm found that the productivity of those working from home fell by as much as a fifth: many worked longer hours, but production fell, in part. because they just had more meetings.
The Japan Institute for Economic, Trade and Industry Research suggests that working from home has reduced productivity by nearly a third, in a country that is not used to it. More recently, a small Cambridge study found that UK workers spend less time in paid work during shutdowns.
The pandemic has spawned a huge amount of literature focused on the well-being of employees, but rather less on the well-being of the customers and the organizations they serve.
In 1970s Britain it was often said that nationalized industries such as British Rail were run for the benefit of their people, not their customers. In parts of the UK public sector it feels like it’s back.
This summer, half a million driver’s licenses were delayed when staff went on strike after being asked to return to the office, and as of September there were still 50,000 truck and bus drivers waiting permits essential to the proper functioning of the economy.
At the Foreign Office, whistleblower Raphael Marshall’s description of working in a largely empty building while trying to evacuate people from Afghanistan was a devastating criticism of what he called a ” deliberate drive to prioritize work-life balance ”.
In the private sector, polls continue to show that a majority of us want to continue working from home, at least some of the time. But what if it’s not really good for us or for those we work for?
Octavius Black, co-founder and CEO of MindGym, believes the big resignation was in part driven by remote working, which weakened ties in the workplace and made us forget what we loved about our jobs. .
Working from home “dissipates the social capital you need to be a successful and complex organization,” he says. “You have to build the right psychological contract.
Sir John Timpson, president of the big Timpson company, believes that while we think we want to stay at home, we are social animals who “thrive in the company of other people”. Companies that adopt hybrid models in which the office is a casual meeting place will be “competitively disadvantaged,” he warns.
It certainly rings with me. My workplaces have always been decisive for my feeling of belonging. According to Ashley Williams, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, humans crave casual interactions – the conversation in the hallway, the conversation with the barista – that allow us to express our anger or express our gratitude.
I certainly found myself speaking a bit too loudly to store staff, taxi drivers, and other queues. Williams argues that working remotely can end up undermining productivity, because “we plan too much our schedule to make up for the lack of social interaction.”
When employees protest that they are working hard, but bosses fear production will drop, who is right? Maybe both.
Studies have shown that we are busier, have more meetings, and see more internal emails, in part because working remotely requires more coordination. But that doesn’t mean we’re efficient.
Almost two years after the first lockdowns, it wouldn’t be surprising if the initial dividends of working from home were to wear off. The vast global experience of how Zoom works was conducted at a time when most of us were already immersed in a corporate culture.
But new hires will have a hard time learning the nuances of the job if they can’t properly interact with seniors locked in luxurious home offices. And leaders find it difficult to know what’s really going on if they don’t have informal meetings with people outside the executive circle. You can learn a lot by meeting a junior person in a hallway and having a chat.
No one wants to go back to presenteeism or exploitation. But I wonder why we are so reluctant to recognize that productivity could be dented by working from home.
A business manager I know was recently surprised, while trying to schedule a meeting with a junior employee, to learn that it was wrong with his yoga session. A seasoned lawyer was furious at the few staff members who attended the webinars she and her colleagues carefully organized – on Fridays.
It is said that 2022 will be the year of the employee. But will 2023 be the year of remorse at work? We will see.