A few months ago I was giving a talk on the future of work. When I cited examples of how the yields grew and worked remotely, skeptical politeness crossed several faces in the audience. Later, other officials expressed their frustration. “I love my staff,” said one. “But it takes a long time for things to happen at home.”
These are not fashions. Some CEOs feel that flexibility makes everyone stronger – and many professional companies are happy to let coders, for example, control what they want. Elsewhere, various companies are facing lawsuits for having too long to ask employees to return to the office two days a week, CEOs just looking around for a return question, trying to get employees to come back with sales hours. But as the competition for talent continues to grow, it is likely that they are setting unrealistic expectations.
After the discussion, I looked at the research on yields. In the early days of Covid, working from home seemed like a success. Surveys on entry and closing times showed that many were keeping or increasing hours. A 2020 survey of U.S. office workers found that respondents said that managers and their subordinates were highly valued. But the picture has been very different. A survey of 10,000 skilled tradesmen at a major Asian technology company found that productivity for home workers dropped to about one-fifth: most worked overtime, but the results dropped, probably because they had more meetings. The Japan Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates that homework has reduced productivity by nearly a third, in an unfamiliar country. Recently, a small Cambridge study found that workers in the UK spend less time on paid work during closing hours.
The epidemic has brought many books about the health of workers, but not about the health of clients and the organizations they serve. In Britain during the 1970’s, it was often said that industrialized industries such as the British Rail were run for the benefit of their employees, not their customers. In some areas of the state, it seems we are back there. This summer, operating permits for half a million were delayed when workers went on strike after being asked to return to office, and in September there were 50,000 truck drivers and buses waiting for permits that are crucial to a thriving economy. At the Foreign Office, the description of the whistleblower Raphael Marshall working in an empty house while trying to evacuate people to Afghanistan was a serious criticism of what he called “the FCO’s priority of ‘working life’.
In secret societies, elections continue to show that most of us want to continue working at home, sometimes. But what if it is not really good for us, or for those we work for? Octavius Black, co-founder and CEO of MindGym, believes that the Great Depression is driven by long-term work, which has weakened working relationships and made us forget our values in our work. Working from home is “disrupting the social fabric you need to be a successful, challenging team” he says. “You need to make a conscious mental connection.” Sir John Timpson, chairman of a large company on Timpson Street, believes that even if we think we want to stay home, we are animals that “grow along with other people”. Companies that adopt mixed colors in which the office becomes a meeting place from time to time will be at a “competitive disadvantage”, he warns.
This makes me very happy. My workplace has always been an important part of my life. According to Ashley Williams, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, people crave casual conversation – street conversation, chatter with a barista – that makes us express anger or gratitude. I have found myself speaking very kindly to the store staff, taxi drivers and friends on the left. Williams argues that working long distances can disrupt productivity, because “we are adjusting our calendar to support the lack of partnerships”.
When employees protest that they are using their socks, but bosses fear that the output will collapse, who is right? Probably all. Research has found that we are busy, having a lot of meetings and seeing a lot of internal emails, among other things because remote work requires a lot of connection. But that does not mean that we are perfect. Nearly two years after it was first shut down, it would not be surprising if the first stages of homework ended. The biggest international test in the field of Zoom took place at a time when most of us had already become entrenched in the corporate culture. But new employees find it difficult to learn the basics of the job if they cannot get along well with adults in the upper echelons of the home. And it is difficult for leaders to know what is going on if they do not meet people who are not in the public eye. You can learn a lot from meeting a young person on the porch and chatting.
No one wants to go back to presenteeism or exploit. But I wonder why we don’t want to admit that yields can be disrupted by homework. A company manager I know was recently shocked, trying to arrange a meeting with a young employee, to be told that it was incompatible with his yoga practice. The attorney general was impressed with the number of co-workers who attended the online meetings which he and his colleagues carefully conducted – Friday.
It is said that 2022 will be the year of the employee. But will 2023 be a sad year at work? We’ll see.