The unprecedented working from home experiment that has been forced upon businesses of all shapes and sizes appears to be somewhat of a surprising success. A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review (Bernstein et al, 2020) indicates positive feedback from employees with regards to their ability to adapt and increased productivity. For their research they questioned over 600 white-collar workers every two weeks from mid-March up to July.
Their main findings to date are:
- Employees feel they are more productive.
- The working day has increased by 10-20%.
- Impromptu/unplanned meetings have reduced by 10%.
- Communication within their regular work network has increased by 40%.
- Surprisingly remote working suits extroverts more than introverts (they put this down to the agreeable traits associated with extroverts, making them more adaptable, and the neurotic traits associated with introverts, giving rise to increased stress levels resulting from significant and sudden change).
- Stress levels, negative emotions and conflict were all down by 10%.
- The success of workers to adapt depended on their personal circumstances, e.g. those with kids struggled!
With all these amazing findings why am I not convinced?First, although I am an avid believer in the value of research and view it as a critical tool to managing the impact of COVID-19 on businesses, this, like all research has its limitations:
- The research focuses on white-collar/office workers. If they cannot adapt to remote working, I don’t know who can. Indeed, I would suggest that they are the one group for which it is most feasible. What about the rest of the workforce?
- The authors themselves acknowledge that results reflect a short period of time. If they were to carry out the same survey in 8 months’ time the results could be quite different.
- The survey asked workers about their own productivity. I have never come across anyone (with the exception of immediate family) who admitted to being unproductive, at any stage (that’s not to say my family are lazy…..just honest)! Therefore I am reluctant to accept this as an measurement of actual productivity.
Second is the issue of creativity and innovation. The research does make an effort to address productivity (although somewhat unconvincingly), however it fails to attempt to measure the impact remote working has on innovation. Without interaction with people outside our routine work environment we become insular, comfortable, and stale. These are all swiftly followed by inertia. I believe this is true to some extent for everyone, regardless of how inventive or dynamic they consider themselves. To be fair the research does take a paragraph to discuss the value of unplanned interactions and makes an attempt to measure the reduction of such meetings in an environment of remote working (they estimate a reduction of 10% which seems low to me). Third, why has remote working suddenly succeeded now when, despite many efforts, it has never really taken off in the past. The authors suggest it is largely due to the fact that EVERYBODY had to do it. This indicates there is a critical mass required for remote working to be feasible in the long-term. There is currently much discussion of hybrid working (combined office and remote working), however it is likely to require a process of trial and error for businesses before they identify their specific critical mass that works for them. I would suggest that many businesses do not have the luxury of trial and error in what is already an incredibly challenging and fluid operational environment. Finally (for now) there are the practicalities or managing remote working from a Human Resource Management/Legislative perspective. The government are currently undertaking a national consultation on Remote Working in Ireland, with a view to publishing guidelines for businesses in the Autumn. This will include an assessment of the implications of:
- Employment Legislation
- Health & Safety Legislation
- GDPR (Data protection)
- HR policies
I am aware of companies offering to buy office furniture for its staff to facilitate working from their kitchen or bedroom and one of the first things that comes to mind is what happens when they leave employment? Will their contracts include a requirement to return their ergonomic chair with their badge? At what stage will the costs of facilitating working from home outweigh what is being saved in office overheads? That’s before we attempt to measure the costs associated with loss of innovation and creativity. When Facebook suggested lower pay for remote workers I felt a migraine coming on (and I don’t even get migraines). To me that sounds like an administrative nightmare, and good luck in coming up with a fair HR policy to manage that idea! To conclude, I am not saying that remote working does not have its place in a successful business environment. We could not have managed to keep our economy going without it in the last few months. However, much more research is needed before we decide it is the way to go!
My advice to businesses is:
- Wait until the government publishes its revised guidelines on remote working.
- Access as much research as you can.
This will help you make informed decisions with regards to your Human Resource Planning and future business model and mitigate the risks associated with bad decisions.
Reference: Bernstein et al, 2020, HBR, https://hbr.org/2020/07/the-implications-of-working-without-an-office