- Interesting findings about WFH (alone) follow from Wharton’s Management Professor Michael Parkes, reported in the Wharton Business Daily, and Mark Golan, a top Google executive – despite their lack of clarity on precise measures used, their good news is (labour) productivity has not stalled due to CV19, counterbalanced by the bad news that innovation has suffered and, for this to recover, a partial return of employees to offices is vital to restore essential collaboration
A new study finds that productivity has remained stable or even increased for many companies that shifted to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic. However, innovation has taken a hit as both leaders and employees feel more distant from each other.
Businesses tend to spend less money and take less risks during uncertain times, but researchers also attribute the current innovation deficit to the difficulty with collaboration that often comes with working from home. Videoconferencing and instant messaging apps can’t perfectly replicate the dynamics of being together in the same room, hashing out ideas and feeding off the energy of co-workers.
“It’s a challenge to feel connected, confident and communicate effectively with the team, and we know from a lot of research that creativity and innovation largely happen through collaboration,”
“Given that context, we tried to see what were some of the benefits and what were some of the challenges, and how workers adjusted to those challenges,” Parke said.
Significantly, the study shows that fears about lost productivity during the pandemic are largely unfounded.
Employees haven’t slackened off just because they are at home. In fact, some home comforts are helping many employees stay at the same level of productivity or reach even higher. They enjoy dressing down, having their pet nearby and personalising a workspace they don’t have to share with nosy neighbours peeking over the cubicle.
“Employees can really focus; they can be comfortable in their own setting,” Parke said. “They’re gaining things like less commute time, not having to get ready or dressed up for work. A lot of those factors, just the comfort and casualness of working from home, came through [in the survey].”
Another positive in the productivity column — at least for those without young children to care for — is less disruption while working. “Think about all the meetings, all the times you’re interrupted, which we know historically has been a major source of people’s lack of productivity,” Parke said. “You can structure your work a little bit more effectively when it’s just you in the office.”
The dip in innovation is the biggest downside to remote working, according to the survey.
But Parke said there are three simple steps that managers can take to overcome this hurdle:
- The first is to make sure that employees have access to a wide range of collaborative tools. Don’t limit them to Zoom or email, but onboard a number of different platforms so that each employee can find what suits them. “The reasoning here is that when people have the flexibility and variety, they can pick tools that work better for them and their own personality and communication style,” Parke said.
- Second, train employees on how to work remotely. It’s not an inherent skill, so a little guidance can go a long way. Training was “another major factor that contributed to employees’ collaboration effectiveness, their empowerment and their ability to share information across their team.”
- Finally, establish a routine way of connecting with your team, and stick to it. Workplaces where managers had regular meeting routines — town halls, one-on-one reviews, brainstorming sessions, etc. — were better at transitioning to remote work because they maintained those routines.
Researchers fully expected to find a drop in productivity. Instead, they found a surprisingly different problem with keeping innovation high.
“The pandemic is showing that employees are able to be productive, and there are some things they really enjoy about that autonomy, so that trust is something organisations should really increase,”
“At the same time, organisations should be developing ways to maintain good collaboration in this remote working environment, because we know from a lot of research that innovation and creativity often happen through collaboration.”
“People are very efficient doing their work at home in their home office, once they know what they are doing. The problem is when you have to decide what to do next.”
“The act of creating a new product, or programme … where the ‘figuring out’ part is very messy and requires input from a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds generally through very ad hoc interactions, that’s where, if you don’t have physical co-location, I think we are all going to struggle. You run the risk of being very efficient at doing the wrong work, and I think over time that’s the risk that we run.”
Golan acknowledged the irony of the tech giant, which builds and sells cloud computing and software products that allow people to work and collaborate online, fundamentally believing in the importance of physical offices.
“Physical co-location still allows people to collaborate better and, I think, relate better,” he said.
“Traditionally, relationships are formed in person. They are formed when you are in the office together, when you’re leaning over a shoulder talking to [someone], when you go to lunch with them.
“So when you go into this kind of environment like we’ve seen with COVID, you can then lean on these relationships. But if you’ve never had a chance to form them, there is nothing to lean on.”
Balancing teams and individuals
Golan said over time there would be a deterioration in relationships and company culture if people, especially younger employees, weren’t physically brought together.
“Companies are going to have to find a way to rekindle that feeling of culture and teams that comes from the formation of personal relationships.”
He said the challenge for Google in the future was working out how to strike the balance between the needs of the team and the wishes of the individual.
“Individuals have lots of different reasons for why they want to work remotely or from home, and often times those reasons don’t necessarily enhance the team.”
“For Google as a company, there has always been this interesting dichotomy because at one level we’ve probably been one of the foremost companies that produces technology that allows people to be efficient from wherever they are, and yet we still fundamentally believe in the concept of physical co-location as the driver of productivity and culture.”
“How do you innovate when you’re sitting by yourself and you’re not able to leverage off the people around you?”