Mobile and cloud computing has enabled remote work in a way that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. The opportunity to add flexibility to our lives is, at its best, allowing many to balance family and work with benefits to both. It’s not just white collar executives, but everyone from teachers through to doctors who have found ways to do their jobs differently.
At its worst, however, the work is coming at us 24×7 and it is almost impossible to switch off. For a long time, there has been evidence that white collar working hours are increasing. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between countries except where regulation directly intervenes such as the French 35-hour work week.
When I last looked at the future of work, before COVID-19, only a small percentage of the workforce were working remotely however most people were working flexibly in some way. By the middle of 2020, that has increased dramatically with about half of workers working from home and all the indications are that the old ways of working are not going to revert.
Anecdotally, employees and employers are suggesting that the continuing move to flexible working practices is increasing the effort put in by workers. We risk falling into the trap of working flexibly all hours of the day and night. Some have blamed the noise of constant communication, in particular email. I’ve argued before that the issue isn’t wasted effort from email, rather that email and allied tools work too well. Email is an enabler of too much work rather than inefficiency.
I’ve also written previously about white collar productivity. As digital skills have become more important, the productivity capability of our professionals has diverged into those that focus on office tools and those that survive them. In the absence of knowing how effective individuals are, it is too easy for performance incentives to encourage outrageously long hours.
The real villain is the move to focus on outcomes rather than effort. It sounds so logical, reward the outputs rather than the inputs and give workers the freedom to do the job in the way that is best for them. But in the absence of knowing how much work it takes to do a given job the incentive to achieve the outputs is greater than the incentive to stay reasonably within working hours.
The move to management by outcomes comes at exactly the time when we know less than ever before about how much effort our people are expending to undertake tasks. While we want to break the nexus between hours and success, we can’t lose the idea of time constraints. Otherwise, we end-up with a constant inflation of expectations.
The problems with piecework, such as the garment industry, where people work from their homes is well known. Workers sign-up to do work paid by the piece at rates that add-up to less than a fair wage. Many parts of the gig economy have exposed even more people to this problem as the effective bidding of work extends from restaurants to odd jobs.
Expectation inflation is bringing the gig economy to the office. Out of sight activities lead professionals to promise more than can be achieved and can cause a fear missing out on rewards and recognition if they can’t deliver. In the absence of measures of effort, there is not enough focus on their individual productivity. It is too easy to replace productive skills with extended hours.
The best employers are recognising this and are doing three things. The first is initiating training for staff in the virtual office tools that will make them productive. The second is ensuring that there is honesty in timekeeping (without falling into the trap of being too intrusive). And finally, the third is emphasising the importance of valuing the whole lives of everyone rather than just their output.
Healthy competition across the workforce is good, it encourages the best to put themselves forward for greater responsibility. We want people pushing, but it needs to be within the bounds of an inclusive and balanced working day. The promise of a better working world needs us to focus on productivity rather than pitting everyone against each other in a destructive Darwinian competition.