Implications of Working Without an Office
How do leaders considering what work after the pandemic looks like for their organisation ensure that the model they create brings together the best of the virtual and real worlds for the organisation and its staff?
In early 2020 the world began what is undoubtedly the largest work-from-home experiment in history. Now, as countries reopen but Covid-19 remains a major threat, organisations are wrestling with whether and how to have workers return to their offices. Business leaders need to be able to answer a number of questions to make these decisions. One of them is “What impact has working from home had on productivity and creativity?” There are other important considerations too, such as fairness. Earlier research found that teams with isolated members or an equivalent number of members in each location reported better scores on coordination and identification within the team. But if some team members were colocated and others were not (as would likely be true in hybrid environments), team dynamics suffered. So if hybrid work environments create two tiers between employees who are in the office and those who are not, or those who have the ability to informally interact with senior leaders and those who do not, virtual employees risk becoming a “lower class.” Paying workers differently depending on the cost of living for the communities where employees choose to live — like Facebook intends to do — runs the same risk.
Ethan Bernstein, Hayley Blunden, Andrew Brodsky, Wonbin Sohn and Ben Waber decided to explore how employees have fared since they began working virtually. To that end, they started surveying a diverse group of more than 600 U.S.-based white-collar employees during the second half of March and continued to do so every two weeks.
They’re asked about their job satisfaction, work engagement, perceptions of their own performance, conflicts with colleagues, stress, negative emotions, and current living situation, among other questions. In addition to the survey answers, participants provided written comments. Further, data was collected on the automatically tracked interactions (based on email and calendars) between a separate group of employees of selected organisations from both before and after they began working from home.
Some of the key points the data has highlighted is that, contrary to some leaders’ fears, productivity has been largely unaffected. Working days are actually 10-20% longer. Interestingly, the best predictor of adaptation isn’t being introverted or extraverted, but being agreeable and emotionally stable. Communication went up 40% with strong ties but down 10% with weak ties, which are those peripheral relationships among staff who don’t work closely with each other but have nonetheless connected over time. By providing novel information and complementary expertise, weak ties have been shown to play an important role in organisational performance, including innovation, raising or maintaining product and service quality, and attaining project milestones.
Building on the strengths and finding the right solutions to address the areas which have suffered in a remote environment will be one of the challenges facing leaders over the next twelve months. Ryan Smith, CEO and cofounder of Qualtrics, believes that his company cannot treat the current pandemic-induced work situation as a temporary aberration. “We have gone through a one-way door. We can’t go back, in part because some organisations have offered to let their people work remotely permanently,” he said. “They’ve already set the terms for what the future is going to be and when organisations are competing for talent, we’ll all be competing against that.” While there has not been a playbook that companies can follow, it is starting to get written now.
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