For the hundreds of millions of office workers forced to participate in the world’s largest telework experiment, whatever enthusiasm they may have had is fading. More than 80% expect to return to the office in the next 12-18 months, according to a Xerox survey of corporate technology chiefs. More than half of companies plan to switch to hybrid models and will increase IT spending.
There is much to iron out. In addition to the software bugs and security holes uncovered by increased usage, you have to assess whether you are increasing efficiency or destroying morale or both. Facebook or Google have told their staff to telework the rest of the year. Others doubt. Bruce Flatt, CEO of Brookfield, one of the biggest owners of shopping centres, says: “It is absurd to think that he will not return to the offices. That indicates naivete about how the culture of a company is built. ” Investors do foresee big changes, as indicated by the growth in the Zoom or Slack Stock Market.
Before Covid-19, few mature companies considered flexible hours to be a necessity. They were a boost to morale, perhaps, and a way to accommodate employees with physical limitations or children; and reduced the need for space and traffic. But inertia ruled. In many cases, the necessary software was barely integrated into the job: older managers were reluctant to learn. It is true that many packages were hastily adjusted versions, prone to collapse and full of security holes.
Another obstacle has been measuring performance. Many bosses continue to rely on physical presence as a substitute for productivity, something particularly evident in East Asia. But now the biggest advocates of working from home may be accountants, by reducing space spending. Some of these adjustments will be temporary, as the frustrations of working at home become apparent.
Employees who enjoy working from home tend to report an increase in production on the fringes of reality and vice versa. A 2012 study from the University of Innsbruck (Austria) shows positive effects on performance when people do creative tasks from home, but less when they are routine. Regular procrastinators, of course, become less productive.
The IT industry is less enthusiastic than might be expected. Yahoo’s generous teleworking policy was abandoned in 2013 shortly after Marissa Mayer became chief; IBM, which in 2009 had 40% of its employees working from home, started backing down a couple of years ago. Trip.com is another obvious example. The Chinese online travel giant was the subject of a 2014 Stanford experiment, which showed that telecommuting increased productivity by 13%. During the outbreak, he made it mandatory, but in April he had moved most of the staff back to the office.
Telecommuting tends to work best when the business is working well. Yahoo was a disaster when Mayer took over; IBM’s revenue had plummeted when it decided to bring the staff back. Poorly disciplined organizations are even less disciplined when they take their eyes off employees. Above all, when you pay for the hours invested and not for production.
Since the financial crisis, the West has seen a “recovery rich in jobs but low in productivity” (McKinsey). One factor is that much of the technological advance that was supposed to improve efficiency did not (see telephone technical supports). The virus, yes, has subjected the collaborative software to a massive stress test. It has also forced everyone to learn how to use the technology they previously resisted. Both factors will drive production. Letting employees keep the time and money saved on commuting would provide the average American with the equivalent of five weeks off and more disposable income.
The highest-paid workers also telework the most, but that may mean they are also more workaholic. Technologies blur the separation between work and personal life. That will have a cost. In the US, growth in net labour productivity, although slow, has increased six times faster than wages since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That has exacerbated inequality, and the frustrated aspirations of the overworked middle and lower classes are manifesting themselves in the form of political extremism, substance abuse, divorce and troubled children, all of which are costs that are transferred to society. one way or another. In Japan, uselessly long office hours have caused decades of economic and demographic stagnation by displacing consumption and procreation. Time spent on the road may end up becoming more work, and deplete morale and efficiency.
The idea of having coworkers physically together is to encourage spontaneous, structured collaboration as well as training. Research labs, advertising agencies, and trading rooms all rely on a community approach to problem-solving, but cubicle farms have not proven to be better at stimulating conversation than Zoom. At Yahoo, dragging everyone back to their desks didn’t make a big difference.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, some predicted that machines would free people from work. But there is a basic human pleasure derived from tackling tasks together, even as an excuse to chat. Companies that consciously incorporate this human drive into their teleworking plans are likely to outperform others. Workers may approach their offices only for specific events intended to stimulate collaboration, build team spirit, or train staff. The rest of the time they could work from anywhere. Using teleworking more efficiently could make the office a better place to work.