Employees whose needs are fully satisfied will be more engaged in their work.
Perhaps the most surprising result of the impromptu 2020 Homeworking Experiment is the perceived increase in productivity that so many participants report20. Can this be true, and what does this tell us about the future of work?
Service sector productivity is notoriously difficult to measure. Most outputs have an intangible dimension that defies simple metrics of “how much” is produced. A seminal 2013 study21 of call centre employees at travel agency Ctrip found that a shift to homeworking produced a productivity uplift of more than 20%; were the minority who worked remotely prior to the pandemic onto something the rest of us has missed?
Research by Avison Young22 looks at the issue using a framework derived from the work of Abraham Maslow23 which characterises a Hierarchy of Workplace Needs. We suggest that employees whose needs are fully satisfied will be happier and more engaged in their work, which will boost productivity24. Our ’Workplace Needs' include a combination of technology and management requirements in addition to our physical environment. As in Maslow’s original, these range from the most basic physiological factors to higher-level issues relating to how engaged we feel in our work and our relationships with our colleagues.
Office workers in the millions started working from home, often at short notice, as COVID-19 lockdowns were enacted. Organizations that had invested heavily in tech-enabled flexible working were at a clear advantage – but most laggards were rapidly able to get employees up and running25, thanks to the proliferation of domestic broadband services. Throw in a home study or kitchen table and the requisite teamworking and video-conferencing software26 you have a functional, if rudimentary, workplace.
Data from Leesman27 from surveys conducted before and after these lockdowns occurred reveals that some aspects of work were better undertaken at home than in the office. Home-based respondents report higher levels of satisfaction when engaged in individual, desk-based tasks requiring focus – like processing emails – and especially reading and creative thinking. A bonus was the absence of a commute (regarded by Londoners as more stressful than a trip to the dentist28 and by 50% of Americans as stressful even pre-COVID-1929), typically one of the top benefits identified by homeworkers30.
Humans crave a sense of belonging which comes from interaction and collaboration.
The productivity upside may have been exaggerated during the initial period while organizations were largely focussed on servicing existing needs – but the duration of the pandemic poses new challenges for companies and homeworkers alike. Once employees’ basic needs are met, their sense of fulfilment and engagement shifts focus. Humans crave a sense of belonging and have a desire for achievement which generally comes from the richness and depth of their interaction, collaboration with others, and a sense of individual contribution to collective success.
This is where difficulties begin. Homeworking may be fine for a seasoned professional with well-established contacts – and a spacious home. It is far harder for a younger employee living in shared accommodation, less capable of working independently and desperate to learn from others. Remote workers typically report a variety of challenges; loneliness, collaboration, and communication top the list31, closely followed by problems switching off or taking periods of leave32. Over time, the appeal of homeworking will start to wear off for some. Companies may have other causes for concern: some CEOs report difficulty in maintaining the identity and culture of dispersed organizations, alongside difficulties in recruitment, training and development.
The potential impact on an organization’s collective innovation and collaboration may prove the most significant concern. Empirical evidence to support the “water cooler effect” is hard to pin down, but many echo the sentiments of Yahoo’s CEO who banned homeworking in 2013 on the basis that "some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings".33
Homeworking clearly isn’t for every individual or organization, but there is an unavoidable sense that the genie is out of the bottle. At the conclusion of the Ctrip experiment, half the workers chose to return to the office; that means half didn’t. As a survey of 800 executives by McKinsey34 concludes: “Some remote work is here to stay but not for everyone or for every day.” Homeworking is only a part of the story – but flexible working is now a given. Despite what many believe, remote working does not exclusively mean work from home; it just means work does not have to be done exclusively within the confines of a central office and could be within a “third place” such as coworking/serviced office locations, satellite offices or coffee shops. As we explore in two of our other Trends for 2021, that has huge implications for workplaces and property portfolios.
Homeworking is only a part of the story – but flexible working is now a given.
20. http://hrnews.co.uk/a-third-of-companies-claim-that-homeworking-brought-on-by-covid-19-has-increased-employee-productivity/ 21. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/working-papers/does-working-home-work-evidence-chinese-experiment 22. Avison Young (2020) Productivity, the workplace and Covid-19, forthcoming 23. Maslow, A.H. (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 50, 370-396. 24. https://fortune.com/2020/10/05/companies-with-happier-employees-outperform-their-peers/?cid=other-eml-onp-mip-mck&hlkid=3e5cd487a7db4a2eaddb1785ebdcf126&hctky=11572020&hdpid=17048c5a-9315-4ab2-b0cd-8486f1ed8b67
25 CIO Water Cooler Research 26 - OFCOM Online Nation report 2020 - https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0027/196407/online-nation-2020-report.pdf 27. Leesman – Index employee experience and remote working surveys
28. https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/feu/en/news/2015/04/27/for-europeans--the-journey-to-work-causes-more-stress-than-their.html 29. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/survey-50-of-workers-say-their-commute-is-stressful-300949046.html 30. https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020 31. https://lp.buffer.com/state-of-remote-work-2020 32. https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/longer-hours-and-loss-of-creative-discussions-among-home-working-side-effects 33. http://allthingsd.com/20130222/physically-together-heres-the-internal-yahoo-no-work-from-home-memo-which-extends-beyond-remote-workers/ 34. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/what-800-executives-envision-for-the-postpandemic-workforce