If you’re one of the people fortunate enough to still have a job, you may be part of the 50% who recently made the move to remote work. As with any widespread business trend - especially one pumped by Facebook - there’s been a lot of hemming and hawing over the trend’s merits.
The impetus for this (inaugural!!) edition of this newsletter was the recently published article - not editorial - The Long, Unhappy History of Working from Home in the NYT. The article greets us with the subhead:
As the coronavirus keeps spreading, employers are convinced remote work has a bright future. Decades of setbacks suggest otherwise.
The author states anecdotally that remote workers feel marginalized relative to their in-person peers, causing them to be less loyal to their employers. He attempts to strengthen the point by sharing data from a survey showing that 54% of remote workers feel ‘less connected to their company’.
This data would be alarming if most people worked for the WHO, developing the covid vaccine and were on the precipice of quitting without warning. Instead, let’s investigate what work actually looks like for a majority of people in the US:
The three largest occupations in the US are all low wage jobs, bereft of health insurance.
Worker productivity has increased dramatically since 1980, all while wages have remained nearly flat. We’re producing more of everything at a lower cost and getting paid less to do so (since the US’ largest two industries by GDP contribution are information and professional services, it’s safe to say this pay gap is inclusive of the many who have switched to remote working).
(Source: https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/, annotation my own)
53% of US employees are ‘disengaged’ at work
Snuggling the two data points warmly together is universal at-will employment.
Reflecting back on feeling marginalized at work and less connected to one’s company, what do those emotions mean in the face of an activity that doesn’t support us, doesn’t pay us commensurate with our production, most of us are cognitively checked out from, and best of all, can cut us loose without warning?
A similar article in the WSJ provides a survey wherein 22.5% of hiring managers, executives, and VPs report that productivity is ‘working poorly’. Unless you count feelings as empirical, there’s nothing to this statistic, save for emotion. It’s the remit of those surveyed executives and VPs to provide employees with the means to be as productive as possible. We don’t show up to work expected to build the desk we use, so why should it be on us to figure out how to increase productivity while working from home? These executives’ fear that if their workers are out of sight, they must be doing something shady.
Most employees are productive between 2 and 4 hours per day. When not in the midst of one of those transcendent hours, being in an office forces you to find less meaningful ways to spend the remaining hours - social media, emailing, checking your phone, perusing the web, making coffee, etc. This wouldn’t matter if we could just leave when we’re done for the day. If we weren’t so used to calling it work, it would be known as captivity. Remote work, while not eliminating distractions, allows us to intersperse our actual lives with work - do laundry, tidy the house, handle personal finances, provide family care - when we don’t feel we can immediately contribute to our job. Take away the ~1 hour most of us spend commuting each day, and people’s ownership of their day becomes even greater.
Articles such as this, that present anecdotal fears about lack of productivity, connectedness, and loyalty as fact further reinforce the idea that employers are at risk from their employees. In 2004, Best Buy implemented ROWE (Results Oriented Working Environment) - a policy that let non-store employees work wherever they chose, provided they got their work done. Not only did this engender trust and ownership amongst employees, it got results: employee productivity, well-being, and retention all went up. Upon its dissolution owing to cost-cutting in 2013, Hubert Joly, Best Buy’s executive chairman remarked, “Anyone who has led a team knows that delegation is not always the most effective leadership style.”
By hiring someone to fix your plumbing, you’re delegating the task of fixing your plumbing to someone who knows what they’re doing. As the homeowner you may not know how plumbing works, but you know your house better than anyone and that ultimately it must function correctly. Trust is tacit here, yet essential: in exchange for compensation, the plumber will leave your home with your plumbing fixed and you can move on to other tasks you are actually capable of completing. Take away trust and the alternative is you standing over the plumber, assuring that between your fleeting glances at their glistening buttcrack, they screw and unscrew the pipes in such a way that your toilets work when you’re done watching and they’re done fixing - with none of those other tasks getting checked off the list.
Instead of reinforcing old fears about supervision and its relationship to productivity, this current moment could be used to orient work to a culture of trust and empowerment. By taking offices out of the equation, work begins to more equitably resemble what it really is - a transaction.
Song of the post (starting this off with my most listened to song of 2019):