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Hybrid working and productivity

This week, Claire Rason posted a link to an article on the BBC website on her LinkedIn blog. It got more than 20,000 impressions, multiple likes, shares and comments. What was it about this article that got people so engaged? It was the findings of a study by Microsoft which found that “bosses think that workers do less from home”. In this article, we explore why these findings are potentially damaging and what can be done about it.

The study was specific to Microsoft, however, given the engagement the article got, it clearly struck a nerve - we suspect because Microsoft is not alone in having this imbalance. The study found that individuals think they are as, or more, productive at home, whereas management disagrees. The killer finding from the study:

"While 87% of workers felt they worked as, or more, efficiently from home, 80% of managers disagreed."

As numerous people pointed out in response to the post, what people think and what the reality is might be very different things. Many asked, “how is this being measured?”. This is important of course, but, these comments underplay the importance of thoughts. As coaches, we spend a lot of time with people’s thoughts. What people think is important, whether a thought is objectively true or not, they are real to the person who thinks them. Thoughts and behaviours are linked; what we think can influence how we feel and behave.

A mismatch of thoughts and hybrid working

It doesn’t take long to imagine the consequences of a mismatch between what workers and managers think when it comes to how hard they are working from home. This mismatch is a fundamental one because it strikes at the heart of so many things: what productivity means, what is expected of the people we work with, how we manage, trust.

If workers feel they working as, or more, efficiently at home they are likely to be wary of taking on more work on the days they are working from home. Indeed, many use their work-from-home days “to get their head down” and get work out of the door. They might exhibit behaviours such as turning off email alerts, not volunteering to help on new projects, or avoiding meetings. Indeed, when as coaches we work with clients around managing burnout and setting boundaries, these very behaviours are often espoused as ways to do just that.

If managers don’t think employees are being as productive at home as when they are in the office, they are likely to have a preference about where they want them to be. We are seeing firms requiring more and more “face time”. Furthermore, when staff are working from home, managers might exhibit behaviours such as micro-managing, giving employees more work, questioning why things haven’t been finished, or asking to see what has been done. Trust is likely to be low and requests for ad hoc permission for things such as going to the doctors, or attending to other personal needs, are likely to be met negatively.

With hybrid-working very much here to stay, these mismatches are bound to lead to discontent and a breakdown of psychological safety. This discontent is perhaps already bubbling under the surface in some teams.

What might managers not be seeing

What might be behind the results of this study? What do managers fail to see when people work from home? We have already alluded to some of these things. It might be that employees are using their work-from-home days to “get their heads down” and so focusing less on responding to emails or being present for colleagues and more on the transactional elements of their jobs. They may see less of a need to impress others in the team when they are at home and instead focus on the task at hand. The reverse is true in the office, particularly in a hybrid environment where the main reason for being in the office is connecting with others. The behaviours exhibited are likely to be those which focus on relationships: speaking to colleagues, having meetings, volunteering to help with shouts for help. Employees will be more visible to managers.

Time to think about output differently

We have already said that the BBC article made no reference as to whether it was the managers or the bosses who were right. Productivity is something that can be measured: but first requires that the term be defined.

What is being measured? In professional services firm the measure of productivity is often time. Even this “simple” metric throws up a number of issues. In the office the time you spend working on any particular thing might be interrupted by conversations with colleagues, overhearing the conversations of others and getting distracted. These might be positive or negative distractions: many have spoken of the need for juniors to learn by osmosis by being present and listening. These distractions might unwittingly be added into the time recorded and measured.

Of course at home there are distractions too, some related to work and others not. The reward is perhaps greater to avoid these distractions at home. For those who get their heads down there might be the opportunity to finish on time and have dinner with family, or to go out and take part in leisure activities. The day can be structured differently when working from home and it is this flexibility that has made hybrid working so attractive.

With different environments being used for different things, is time still the best measure of productivity? Does hybrid working allow us to shift the focus on to outputs (value to client) from the inputs (time spent working for the client). More conversations are needed here and the value of doing so is potentially huge.

What about quiet quitting and burnout?

A moment to reflect on burnout and “quiet quitting”. Quiet quitting is about setting boundaries and protecting those. Perhaps it is easier for this to happen at home. Is this perhaps what the study is reflecting? If so, if the workers' actual motivation (self-protection, re-evaluation of values, etc.) is challenged by a manager who thinks that it is something else (laziness, avoidance, etc.) the impact is potentially very damaging.

How do firms navigate all this?

The interesting thing about the study is that it is easy to see how the results could be replicated in different organisations. Indeed, firms might choose to see whether these results hold true for them. If a mismatch exists, then it would be prudent for firms to explore what is expected of employees working from home, to think about what the employees' expectations are vs. those of management and whether there is a gap that needs to be filled. The goal posts have moved and often these conversations don’t happen until it is too late.

To find out how Client Talk can help with hybrid teams, get in touch.


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