Over the past year did you get an opportunity to work from home? In my case I did it for a couple of days, but otherwise worked in my library office. My case was different from many people who shifted to a part time or fully virtual work situation. To reduce COVID spread, companies across many industries offered their employees the flexibility to work from anywhere. However, the big question yet to be answered is whether this change has enabled greater productivity and satisfaction or if it has become an impediment to creative teamwork. The initial answer to this question is a big maybe!
I recently came across two good explorations of this topic. The first was an article from The Guardian titled The empty office: what we lose when we work from home. Reporter Gillian Tett explored the this idea: For decades, anthropologists have been telling us that it’s often the informal, unplanned interactions and rituals that matter most in any work environment. So how much are we missing by giving them up?
Of particular interest is a look at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a group that designs the underlying architecture of the Internet. Over the years the IETF developed a fascinating way to poll the collective body on decisions. In a conference room, the group will ask members to hum to show support or opposition to an idea. It is a type of decision making process that can only work effectively in a real world environment. As Tett notes:
When the IETF members use humming, they are reflecting and reinforcing a distinctive worldview – their desperate hope that the internet should remain egalitarian and inclusive. That is their creation myth. But they are also signalling that human contact and context matter deeply, even in a world of computing. Humming enables them to collectively demonstrate the power of that idea. It also helps them navigate the currents of shifting opinion in their tribe and make decisions by reading a range of signals.
Other view of the effects of work from home can be found in a recent Freakonomics podcast titled Will Work from Home Work Forever? In the middle of the podcast host Steven Dubner interviews economist Steven Davis about his studies on working from home prior to the pandemic and then a year afterward. Davis’ findings are illuminating.
The real benefit to being at the office is face-to-face interaction — which might be painful if it’s your boss reprimanding you, but this concept of a knowledge spillover — all of that causes, we think, productivity to be higher at the office than at home. But we also think working at home is not as unproductive as it used to be. Because we have all of these tools at our disposal.
Later on in the podcast, Dubner interviews Raj Choudhury of the the Harvard Business School. His multiple year study of remote work done by U.S. Patent Office employees demonstrated measurable benefits from working at home. He found the examiners were 4.4% more productive at home than in the office. However, he also discovered another factor at play, increased loyalty.
And the story that came was one of loyalty. That “I was really helped by this policy because now I could move to Philly and my daughter needs some medical treatment, which is only available in Philly. No other organization will let me work in Philly and do the kind of work I’m doing. So I have to give something back.”
The factors that will determine the long term success of working from home are still being figured out. To learn more about the direction of work from home, I highly recommend both these Guardian and Freaknomics pieces. They are well worth the read and listen.