Dr. Shalini Lal is the Founder and CEO of Unqbe, an education and advisory firm around the "Future of Work". She works with several leadership teams to build the Leadership Styles, Cultures, and Organizational Structures that support Innovation and Agility. She is also the host of the "Future of Work Show" on LinkedIn, where she hosts conversations with leading global academics, practitioners and thinkers around different future trends. She also is a published author (The Secret Life of Organizations, Hachetter India), and often writes for leading magazines and papers. Her past roles have included Director HR (Deustche Bank); CHRO (Escorts Agri); Chief, OD and Change (Airtel). She is a UCLA PhD, Wharton Fellow, IIM-A MBA, and Stephens Eco Grad; and enjoys bringing together insights from academia with the wisdom of practitioners.
2021 will be a landmark year as several organisations attempt some form of hybrid working—where employees work a few days from the office and others remotely.
So, what do we know about the underlying principles that can help us in the process? Well, it turns out—we actually do know enough to make good choices. The rest will need to be learned as we go along.
There are two sources of information we can draw upon—research insights and anecdotal evidence from this past year.
A rich source of insights comes from a study done by Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom who conducted the world’s first randomised trial of remote working at a call centre in China in 2013. The experiment was simple—employees were invited to participate in an experiment on working from home. Half of those eligible were assigned to a control group and the other half worked from home. They were all provided with identical workspaces and internet connectivity. The study ran for nine months and the experiences of those in the control group were compared with those in the experimental group.
Productivity goes up for many roles as they go remote
One of the most surprising findings of the pandemic was that after the first few weeks of confusion and disorientation, new routines emerged and within a few months productivity started rising.
In organisations not hit by large supply chain blocks and where work lent itself to digitisation, 2020 in fact turned out to be a good year for productivity.
The Stanford study similarly found that productivity for call centre workers working from home went up by 13 percent. This increased productivity was an outcome of long hours worked each day with fewer distractions.
This is great news for the design of the hybrid workplace. There are definitely work categories that will benefit from scheduling on days with remote working.
We know that deep-focus work that requires distraction-free zones for a few hours, is especially well suited for remote work. Work that requires strategic thinking or creativity needs time to enter a state of flow. Such work suffers in environments that are rich in distractions.
But that is not all, simple repetitive tasks—like that of call centre workers, or tasks that require coordination, are also well suited for the days of remote working.
There are high-touch tasks that benefit from in-person work
There are at least two types of tasks that especially benefit from meeting in-person. These are collaborative problem solving and one-on-one coaching.
Sure, there are many technology solutions that allow for collaborative problem solving, but they are far more effortful than in-person meetings. There is an energy transfer that is far harder via screen, and some tasks are simply easier with a pen and a whiteboard.
Similarly, while coaching can work remotely, it is a bit easier in person. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is much easier to develop new relationships in person, even if subsequent interactions are virtual.
So high-touch, collaborative work will benefit from being scheduled for in-office days.
Not everyone responds the same way to remote or office work
Nine months into the Stanford study, employees in the experiment group were asked if they would like to return to the office, and about half switched back.
Even as productivity rose, social isolation increased over time and for many call centre workers, that was sufficient to bring them back to the office setting. For those who continued working remotely, there was a far higher increase in productivity—of 22 percent. They also reported far higher levels of well-being and half the rate of attrition.
This has also been the anecdotal experience of many through the pandemic. Some have loved remote work, others can’t wait to return to office.
Young people are for instance, especially those working away from home, more likely to rely on the office for friendships and social connections. Others miss the energy and camaraderie. In the end, each person is different. Moving to a hybrid environment, one can recognise and value these individual differences. This is also in keeping with a larger trend at play—the move toward deep personalisation of employee experience.
There is however a dark side to remote working—fairness concerns
Rather troublingly, the Stanford study found that remote workers at the same levels of productivity got promoted far less frequently than those working in-office.
There could be a number of reasons for this, but none of them is good.
Perhaps they were simply not at top of the mind of their managers. Perhaps their managers did not have time to get to know them better as people or observe their managerial potential. Or perhaps their competence was harder to accept—despite the metrics.
We may never know. But this raises very troubling questions for organisational leaders.
There are few jobs where productivity can be measured as clearly as it can with call centre workers. They are tracked daily through metrics such as calls per hour and business generated. Despite such clear metrics, if those who worked from home were promoted less frequently than those who worked from office—there are deeper challenges at working through hybrid than we may be anticipating.
For instance, how will one rate workers who spend far more days in office compared to those who work largely remotely? Will sensitisation to these deep ethical concerns help? These are all matters that will become clearer only as we move ahead.
As organisational leaders design the hybrid workplace, there are key principles to draw upon.
The first is that there is work that happens better remotely and there is work that happens better in-person. Understanding which is which helps. Second is understanding that there are underlying individual differences of team members. Recognising these will increase well-being and overall engagement. And finally, there is a caution—watch out for fairness concerns if some team members work remotely more than others.
This is part one of a two-part series on work before and after Covid-19. Please click here to read part one.
Dr Shalini Lal is the co-founder of Unqbe and works at the intersection of ‘people and organisations’ and ‘the future of work’. She has a PhD in organisational science from UCLA and has been a senior HR leader