The hybrid workspace, societal well-being, and productivity: on the surface, these three concepts are not obviously related to each other. But permit me the opportunity to explore each of them in the context of our current environment and then conclude with a proposal for organizations to consider that could improve organizational performance and personal well-being.
In many organizations, the boundary between home and work has been blurred beginning with the existence of instant-access email and text messaging, combined with the broad-scale availability of cell phones. That boundary between home and work totally disappeared in early 2020, when many employees across the globe were sent home to work due to the pandemic, and totally new work processes and patterns were established.
During this time at home, workers realized the hundreds of hours they could gain each year by not having to commute. And, in most cases, people realized the workday could be redesigned to accommodate virtual meetings, solo worktime, family responsibilities, hobbies, and exercise. Also, people were enjoying their newfound autonomy and empowerment to make decisions.
According to Jaime Teevan, chief scientist at Microsoft, as work went home, 49% of Microsoft employees reported working longer hours and only 9% reported working fewer hours. A Bloomberg report stated that people were working three additional hours in the U.S and, according to VPN data, logging in to work at odd hours, with a spike from midnight to 3 AM. However, there is also a downside to working from home. Some Microsoft employees reported that they desire time in the office to reinstate work-life balance boundaries and to allow focus time for work. The office environment also provides needed time for cultural bonding, team brainstorming and other teamwork, and socialization (“water-cooler” time). Innovation is frequently a hybrid activity by its very nature. It requires people getting together to exchange ideas, brainstorm, prototype, and refine concepts. It also requires time spent alone to reflect, to consider ideas, and to refine personal contributions.
As most organizations are coming to realize, the future will be one with a hybrid work environment, with some time at the “office” and some time at home. The balance is yet to be determined and will vary by organizational mission and individual preference. Curt Steinhorst points out in a Forbes article that leaders must avoid several crucial mistakes in a hybrid future:
Top-down, arbitrary decision making: Empowerment has been successful, and a return to old patterns could lead to enhanced resignations. Lack of trust: The last year-plus has debunked the myth that employees must be observed to make sure they are working. Real-estate-based rationales: We own/rent the space and must use it productively. Failure to supply appropriate technology: Providing appropriate technology for home-based work enhances productivity (or otherwise frustrates employees, reducing engagement and productivity) and reduces security risks. Rushing into a plan: Phase in hybrid work in stages; committing to a final plan too early will not allow consideration of factors still unknown.
Let me share some data. According to a 2017 Deloitte study, 88% of millennials believe their employers should play a significant role in addressing societal issues such as income inequality, hunger, and the environment. Similarly, a 2015 Deloitte survey of 7,800 millennials from 29 countries led to the conclusion that companies should spend more time on broadly contributing to society. A Gartner study of more than 30,000 people worldwide reported that 87% of employees believe businesses should take a public position on societal issues relevant to their business. And a second Gartner survey indicated that corporations that do take a stand have an increase in the number of employees who go above and beyond the call of duty at work. This discretionary effort also enhances employee engagement; hence, greater labor productivity.
In a 2021 McKinsey pulse survey of 350 senior executives, 56% of respondents reported higher work-from-home workforce productivity compared with pre-COVID levels. But how do you convert survey data to true measures of productivity? With 24/7 access to work and employees’ responsibility to work from home, classical definitions of productivity (measures of the efficiency of resource use — e.g., labor, machines, energy, and capital) become meaningless.
We must consider how we measure overall productivity — and labor productivity specifically — in a hybrid environment. How do we most effectively engage employees and produce organizational output? How do “extra effort” and flexible schedules factor into a metric? And, given the benefits of an organizational commitment to societal well-being, how is that turned into a meaningful metric for overall productivity, including societal productivity that leads to greater employee, customer, and community engagement? While I don’t know that anyone has the answers yet, I believe the time is right to focus on the meaning and measurement of productivity in a hybrid, socially-conscious work environment. I welcome your thoughts!