For many people, the last two years and more have felt like a vast experiment in which they have tested new ways of working, socializing and finding the right work/life balance. As organizations adopt different models as the Covid crisis subsides, the experiment continues.
Amid all this flux, Prithwiraj Choudhury, who studies the future of work as an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, is sure of one thing: hybrid working is here to stay.
“I don’t think a CEO should try to turn back time. Workers will demand flexibility – and rightly so,” he says, warning that companies that have forced staff to return to headquarters five days a week will find it harder to recruit and retain talent.
Choudhury has been a strong advocate for remote work, particularly the work from anywhere (WFA) model, since before the pandemic. Its studies have indicated that majority remote work can lead to greater productivity and offer improvements in work/life balance.
For example, a 2019 research report he co-authored on a WFA program that began in 2012 at the US Patent and Trademark Office concluded that the arrangement increased productivity, measured by the number of patent applications. examined each month, by 4.4% . Participating employees also said the flexibility it gave them to live anywhere in the continental United States provided them with a better quality of life.
Find the right balance
The widespread shift to remote working imposed by Covid has brought similar benefits to employees around the world, according to Choudhury. In particular, he points to the results of a 2020 field experiment that he and his colleagues from Harvard and Stanford University conducted on hybrid work with 130 administrative staff from the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, the one of the largest NGOs in the world.
Over a period of nine weeks, they found that employees who spent between 23% and 40% of their working time in the office found the optimal combination. According to the working paper they published in March, this was the sweet spot where staff “enjoy the flexibility and yet aren’t as isolated as their peers who work primarily from home”.
Basically, people in this “middle” group produced the most original work, as measured by the novelty of their email communications. They also received better performance ratings than their peers who had adopted different models, including working entirely in the office.
“This is the first real-world experiment I’ve seen that attempts to uncover how different levels of hybrid working affect work outcomes,” says Choudhury.
Another recent study by academics from Stanford and Columbia University focused on the ability of remote meetings to replicate the kind of creative collaboration associated with in-person confabs. Published in the journal Nature in April, it pointed out that videoconferencing inhibits innovation because it forces participants to focus too much on their computer screens.
This study found that online colleagues generated virtually fewer ideas than face-to-face participants because their restricted focus “constrains the associative process underlying idea generation.” Anyone tired of the sight of Zoom grids on their monitor might just agree. The finding indicates that all brainstorming sessions are best reserved for occasions when people are together in the same space.
But Choudhury thinks asynchronous communication can help foster creativity when people are working remotely. Through tools such as Google Docs, a Slack channel, or a corporate intranet, employees can share ideas and trust colleagues, perhaps in different time zones, to read and digest them as they work. are ready and respond to them with more thoughtful thoughts.
“I wake up, read your ideas, walk the dog, think about what you wrote, come back and add my thoughts,” he suggests. “The argument for the asynchronous brainstorming-first model is that it leads to more in-depth work.”
Is the hybrid here to stay?
These factors partly explain why Choudhury backs the WFA deals that have grown in popularity since the pandemic. Airbnb, for example, joined companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Deloitte and PwC in April to allow employees to work 24/7 from anywhere they choose.
This clearly offers employees a great deal of flexibility, so that a worker whose parents are aging, for example, might choose to move closer to them to provide better elder care. It could also reduce the kind of career conflict that can arise between couples when one partner gets a dream job that requires the other to make sacrifices in their own careers.
“We have been limited in our lives by geography for decades. WFA sets us free,” says Choudhury.
While a tech startup may be a perfect fit for the WFA, its research suggests large organizations can also successfully adopt the approach. For example, Tata Consultancy Services, the Indian IT giant that employs more than 500,000 people, is moving to a model where its employees will spend a quarter of their working hours at headquarters. But schedules must be coordinated among his various groups to take advantage of the limited time they spend together in the office.
“Each team at the start of the fiscal year should put in everyone’s calendar when those roommate days will occur,” notes Choudhury.
WFA isn’t necessarily limited to so-called knowledge work either, he adds. A recent co-authored case study examines Unilever’s pilot projects to digitize its manufacturing operations. This initiative, launched in 2018 in a factory in Brazil, allowed factory employees to work remotely, without changing the workforce. The company is studying the possibility of creating a global virtual control room to oversee operations at its 200 production sites worldwide.
“A control engineer could now live on a beach in Barbados,” he muses.
Adapting to the hybrid world
Some employers note that having the best of both worlds has a catch. London law firm Stephenson Harwood, for example, recently said it would allow staff to work remotely, but at 20% less than their current salary. The reduction in salary reflects the reduced expenses of not having to travel to the capital. It also makes the choice to work from home more difficult.
Such measures reflect how different policies are likely to emerge around remote working beyond just whether to allow it or not, says Choudhury, who notes that Airbnb, by allowing the staff to work from anywhere in the United States, will keep them at the same level. Pay.
“My prediction is that companies with more flexible policies — and pay equity policies — will continue to interact better with their teams,” he says.
Flexible work arrangements stemming from the pandemic have also sparked debates about their impact on companies’ choices about who gets promotions. Having time to face the boss has long been considered the key to climbing the career ladder. Thus, a staff member who spends more time in the office with senior managers might have a better chance of advancement than a colleague who works primarily from home.
Choudhury acknowledges that this is “a real concern”. One way to solve the problem is to revamp the way performance is measured so that ratings are based solely on the quality and quantity of results, not the number of days a person comes to the office, says -he.
But this is simply part of the larger restructuring that business leaders must tackle to adapt their organizations to the new work paradigm. Key metrics would include enabling asynchronous communication, creating “internal Wikipedias” of company knowledge, and aligning people’s schedules to maximize in-person collaboration, mentoring, and socializing.
“What you really need as a business to support hybrid working and WFA is to install a new set of management practices,” Choudhury points out. “This work needs to be led from the top – the CEO and the entire C-suite needs to embrace it.”