The Business Improvement Network

Remote and Hybrid Working

By Sam Monteath

Sam Monteath

Remote and Hybrid Working - Justification and Productivity


It’s still new and different; it still needs justification


I recently worked with a company who provide an essential service.


In the pandemic, the Operational staff barely missed a beat. They were at the depot and servicing customers, whilst Head office and Support staff were, of course, sent to work from home as per government guidelines.


Those desk-based staff are still regularly working at home, and that’s causing resentment from their colleagues who have to travel, who often have a strenuous job, which can involve getting cold and wet, early in the morning or later in the evening.


You might think that's natural and to be expected. And on the other hand, if you don’t need to commute and can do your job as well from home, why wouldn’t you stay put?


But there was something else going on, something I’ve sensed elsewhere, but it was overt here. When the head office was failing to deliver for the front-line, it was being blamed on the hybrid working. From my observations, there are any number of reasons that these mistakes or breakdowns in communications could happen. But the finger points most often at the working arrangements. That mistrust that has built is going to be very hard to break down. For this organisation, and many others.


A core employee need


Whilst many organisations embraced remote and hybrid working pre-Covid, the pandemic forced many into it. And, as most organisations have found, once in place it’s hard to take away.


What’s apparent from the many conversations that I have within and about employers is that hybrid working has too much value for the individual to be taken away overnight.


There were always three “hygiene” factors in considering a new job:

1.            Does it pay enough?

2.            Can I / do I want to do the job?

3.            Can I get to the location?


That third has now been modified to: is there sufficient flexibility for me to do the job where – and even when - I choose?


It won’t be the same everywhere

That might be different for different organisations though – especially in different territories.

As this article spells out, different drivers have had different effects in different geographies. For instance, European cities better blend office, retail, and leisure than US cities. So, there’s more of a draw to be in the office. In a place like Hong Kong there may be more of a cultural expectation to be physically visible. What is certain is that cramped accommodation and excellent public transport creates motivation and removes barriers.


Can remote work damage employee engagement?

While remote working can’t be taken away, the consequences do need to be considered.


Data from Gallup suggests that remote workers can feel isolated or disconnected, as we might expect. But they also suggest that their engagement and connection to the company may weaken over time.


Let’s look at the question Gallup has asked: “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.” For remote and hybrid workers that is declining over time, and scores lowest for those that are purely remote.


That question sits at the heart of employee engagement. Not everyone can be fully “engaged” (whichever definition you subscribe to). Some want to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Some are less committed than that.


But for others – and Gallup’s own research backs this up – they need and want to feel that purpose.


There’s a clear connection between understanding purpose of the organisation and their capacity to perform (and to stay longer, and to advocate for the organisation, and all the other benefits of engaged employees)


In net effect – ensuring employees understand your purpose benefits them and your organisation. So, there now needs to be new ways to connect the remote workers with your organisational purpose: what drives you and you want your people to drive towards.


Other recent research


An Owl Labs study of 2,050 full-time American workers found that 60% of managers are concerned that workers are less productive when working remotely, while 62% of workers say they feel more productive when working remotely, and we’ve seen these responses elsewhere. Managers in this case tend towards more of a Theory X outlook.


But then we get two other findings that start to support that managers’ perspective.

  1. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that workers who were randomly assigned to work from home full time were 18% less productive than in-office employees, either taking longer to complete tasks or getting less done.
  1. Stanford scientists at the Institute for Economic Policy Research found that remote work productivity depends on the mode of remote work. Fully remote work is associated with about 10% lower productivity than fully in-person work.

Perhaps, you need to be the right person to work effectively from home. Perhaps all, or at least, most people benefit from working at least some of the time alongside your colleagues.


The future?

It feels like for now, organisations will continue in a holding-pattern. Some have made a bigger and more public demand that workers return to the office more often – including, some would say ironically, Zoom.


But we haven’t yet seen a wholesale shift, we haven’t seen high profile companies declaring you can be remote forever.


What might finally start to shift the needle one way or another?

1.            A sharper economic downturn might make candidates consider the importance of hybrid work vs security.

2.            So too, it might make employers consider the “premium” they currently pay to remote workers who don’t have commuting time or cost, especially if they also occupy expensive office space.


Whatever the future holds, I suggest it is better to move forwards by design rather than by default as clearly happened with many companies in Covid, who, not unreasonably moved - or were foreced - into new ways of working, without having agreed the changes with staff or linked the change to their mission and values. 


Perhaps this represents an execellent opportunity to address your mission, vision and values, check in with the employess and reassess 'purpose' and link to agreed ways of working and behaviours? 

About the author

Sam Monteath has worked in employer marketing for nearly a quarter of a century, and loves to understand what motivates, engages and attracts employees.

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