In the early days of the pandemic there was a wave of fear that worried managers all over the world. Would their team be slacking off and enjoying daytime TV instead of working from home during the lockdown? If the team is filled with people that are happy to avoid the supervision of managers, then what would happen?
In 2020, Fortune magazine ran a story suggesting that both managers and the employees being managed were both in danger from home working. The managers would fret that the team is watching Netflix all day, but the reality was often that a 5pm finish became 9pm because without a commute to define the end of the day it just carries on.
Many companies, such as SensĂ©e, have been facilitating work from home for years now. If you look back to the Harvard Business Review a couple of years before the pandemic started then it is filled with advice on how to ask your boss for the right to work from home. Itâs well documented that home working can be just as productive as in-office work.
The HBR advice sounds almost charming after the experience everyone has had over the past couple of years: âIf youâre proposing to work from home a single day per week, tryÂ for Wednesday. This way, your boss wonât perceive your request as a means to elongate your weekends, Nicholas Bloom says. âWednesday is not a slacker day,â he says. âItâs the middle of the week, and itâs a day for concentrated work, like detailed analysis.ââ
Professor Bloom of Stanford University is well known globally for his work on research into modern working practices. His research into the Chinese travel agency CTrip has been cited as the classic example of how working from home can function well.
But even Nicholas Bloom was advising people how not to look like a slacker for wanting the flexibility to work from home. This idea of spending all day scrolling the Netflix menu is interesting because of exactly how wrong it was. When the pandemic happened, and most office-based workers had to start working from home, a subtle shift in managerial power also took place.
Working remotely, people need to be judged more on their deliverables, on what they are actually doing. There is far less scope for a manager to have favourites or team members who create a lot of noise in meetings, but then deliver very little. The typical âoffice politicsâ of being visible and yet doing very little doesnât work when output is being measured transparently.
AnÂ RTĂ podcast from Ireland takes on the point directly: âWhen you are working remotely, people see the product and not the process. If your usual work process is to sit at your desk playing Solitaire (orÂ Wordle) on your computer, this will not work out so well when working remotely. One of the early myths about remote work was that everyone would be a slacker. The data suggest almost the opposite, that remote work has probably made slacking less likely and less problematic.â
Itâs a valid point that companies need to apply some systems and measurement to ensure that output is being measured fairly and transparently, but this isnât difficult. Itâs what most companies should be doing anyway and it can be done without the sneaky âspy softwareâ that some companies have reverted to using. Monitoring deliverables doesnât mean covertly spying on people at home using their webcam.
If this structure is in place then a great deal of workplace toxicity can be removed. A work from home team can actually feel more like a team than one that is physically together in the office. The slackers we all know from the office have nowhere to hide when their deliverables are monitored – for most people thatâs a positive outcome from the pandemic experience.