Share
FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email
Flexible working - home working - worker bees

Human Resources

Home alone or office drone? How to get the balance right 

Published 30 April 2021 in Human Resources • 6 min read

Working from home rapidly became the norm for many during the pandemic. And with employee feedback mirroring existing research on the wellbeing and productivity benefits, companies increasingly have to think about crafting a flexible working strategy.   

But what do companies have to consider to ensure their strategy is a success? Two experts provide insights on productivity and wellbeing as part of a flexible working strategy.  

Flexibility is fine, but it’s not a case of one-size-fits-all  

Glenn Dutcher – Assistant Professor of Economics, Ohio University  

Any flexible working strategy is going to have trade-offs. The key thing to consider is the current environment and the tasks a company is asking its employees to perform. Aligning a flexible working strategy against the different categories of asks will allow companies to build a more effective working arrangement. Here are the key points to consider:  

Is home working appropriate for the nature of the task in hand?   

Is the task mundane or creative? And is it being performed alone or in a team? Previous research that looked at the effect of the environment on individual performance suggests people perform mundane tasks better within a cubicled office environment. On the other hand, remote workers are around 25% more productive when it comes to creative tasks.

This makes intuitive sense. If a task is mundane, you need some structure, whereas it probably helps to have freedom and flexibility if you’re being creative. But these are the effects at the individual level. What happens within a team setting?  

A flexible working strategy requires organizations to be proactive in monitoring wellbeing and assisting employees to work remotely.
- Glenn Dutcher

 

Team settings are complex   

When people work in a team, their output is tied to someone else’s output. And of course, no-one wants to be the individual who is solely responsible for producing the entirety of the team’s output. Perception and beliefs play an important role here. Do people believe their teammates are being lazy or working? And how does that impact their impetus to work? Our research suggests that when office workers are paired with remote team workers, there is a perception that remote workers are less productive.   

How does remote working affect the creative domain?   

For instance, remote teams encompass less interaction, often relegated to throwing ideas back and forth over email, eliminating the simultaneous nature of collaborative work. In essence, team members’ ideas are combined ex-post, in contrast with office teamwork where ideas are constantly being sculpted and built upon within a group setting.

But attempts to communicate ideas face-to-face could also have inefficiencies, with groupthink potentially interfering with freedom to express and develop ideas. Generally speaking, remote working may generate a higher volume of ideas, but face-to-face work may generate more novel ideas. This is because face-to-face teams are able to take advantage of the team’s diversity, but remote teams are not. 

Are there other considerations for remote teams?  

An important function within an organization is to synthesize employees’ knowledge so that what one employee learns as a best practice can be passed on to other employees – in other words, “organizational learning by doing”.  When the tasks are routine, this kind of information can be easily written down and passed along to others even if they are working remotely.

However, due to the tacit nature of creativity, working face-to-face on the task is the best way to teach others one’s learned knowledge. A remote setting is going to limit this aspect of organizational learning by doing.  

The way ahead 

An effective flexible working strategy therefore needs to answer several questions. What are the goals of the organization and what is the structure of work? Are there lots of mundane tasks that need to be carried out or more creative tasks that benefit from teamwork? Does the organization want to prioritize volume of creative output or novel ideas? Is it important for the company to build up its knowledge base?

Companies that have low turnover and prioritize knowledge-building would benefit from more face-to-face work. High turnover environments may not deem learning how to become more creative (or knowledge-building), or knowledge transfer, to be particularly relevant.  

A lot of organizations are moving to a hybrid model, which builds in some amount of flexibility. Pinning down that hybrid model requires careful consideration of what the organization looks like and how employee tasks are structured, while giving managers the freedom to exercise their own discretion when deciding whether an individual would benefit from flexible working.  

Busy modern open plan office with staff home office working
“Remote working may generate a higher volume of ideas, but face-to-face work may generate more novel ideas.”
- Glenn Dutcher

Set boundaries to help remote workers switch off 

Rachel Morrison – Associate Professor, Organisational Behaviour/Work Psychology, Auckland University of Technology  

There is a growing acceptance that flexible remote working is important in terms of wellbeing outcomes. Traditionally, home working was deemed a privilege or something that resulted in a degree of career sacrifice. The pandemic has changed all that, potentially bringing some real upsides in terms of gender equity – if everyone engages in flexible work, perhaps it will no longer be associated with being on the “mummy-track”.  

Onboarding and relationship-building   

Some of the most immediate short-term impacts of the pandemic and reliance on remote work have been detrimental. For new hires, in particular, onboarding has become more challenging, with no way to formally meet colleagues or take advantage of informal learning and opportunistic upskilling. 

Initiating friendship is also difficult over Zoom or social media, particularly with platforms such as Facebook as it circumvents thoughtful self-disclosure and the ability to curate what aspects of your personal life are made accessible to colleagues. Existing employees already have access to established professional relationship networks, so careful consideration needs to be given to socializing and onboarding new workers. 

A flexible working strategy requires organizations to be proactive in monitoring wellbeing and assisting employees to work remotely.
- Rachel Morrison

 

Generational, gender and personality differences   

In some cases, younger people expect to have their social needs met at work, while older people are more likely to have many of their social needs met through other spheres of their lives (via spouses and children, for example). In terms of gender, in both the US and New Zealand, around 80% of jobs lost during the pandemic were lost by women. This was driven by a high proportion of hospitality jobs lost and women choosing to leave the workforce in order to look after children once schools closed.

Organisations therefore need to be mindful of work-life balance issues, with proper thought given to boundaries and routines. In some cases, they may need to accept that some workers with children will require greater flexibility or may fall short of their targets over the short term. In terms of personality, introverts tend to cope much better with remote working, while extroverts will miss regular interaction.  

The nature of the work environment   

Research bears out the notion that more intensely shared work environments, such as open plan offices, make it more likely that colleagues will socially withdraw (regardless of extroversion or introversion), suggesting that there is a limit to the levels of interaction that people benefit from. Open plan working also has a gendered impact. Women tend to use words such as “observed”, “visible” and “monitored” when describing moving through open plan environments, hinting at women’s tendency to self-objectify, derived from their extensive lived experience of being looked at. 

The way ahead   

A flexible working strategy requires organizations to be proactive in monitoring wellbeing and assisting employees to work remotely. That means conducting employee wellbeing surveys or offering question and answer sessions to help workers communicate upwards through their organization’s hierarchy, and offering tangible support (perhaps assisting with the internet costs, as well as a company laptop).

Meanwhile, managers should be specifically trained in how to facilitate workshops and brainstorming sessions, and encouraged to demonstrate good work culture behaviours. Refraining from sending an email at 10 p.m. sends a clear message to employees that home life is just as important as workplace productivity.  

Authors

Glenn Dutcher, experimental exonomist

Glenn Dutcher

Assistant Professor of Economics, Ohio University 

Glenn Dutcher is an experimental economist who specialises in issues related to how working remotely affects productivity of creative work, routine work and work done in teams.

Rachel Morrison Professor of Organisational Behaviour

Rachel Morrison

Associate Professor, Organisational Behaviour/Work Psychology, Auckland University of Technology 

Dr Rachel Morrison teaches undergraduate and postgraduate Organisational Behaviour/Work Psychology within Faculty of Business Economics and Law at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), New Zealand. She has an interest in the way the physical work environment impacts employees’ well-being and productivity, with a particular focus on interpersonal relationships in the workplace.

Related

The Help Desk

3 hours ago • by Alyson Meister in Human Resources

Office life can be a source of conflict and emotional pain no matter where you are on the career ladder. Alyson Meister uses the latest research to help tackle any problems you may...

Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on. They only take five minutes.
 
Start Learning

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
 
Gain Insight

Join Membership

Log in here to join the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
 
Sign up to I by IMD

Welcome to I by IMD

Install
×

You have 4 of 5 articles left to read.