Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom is a true believer, and like many true believers, he lets his message outrun his evidence. Based on a single study of a Chinese travel agency, he enthusiastically declares working from home a “future-looking technology” with “enormous potential.”
Not so fast
Bloom’s study comes with serious limitations and is contradicted by a later Gallup report. However, while it is far too soon to draw broad conclusions from his findings, savvy business leaders can read between the lines and extract some valuable lessons for working optimally with all employees.
Bloom focused on China’s biggest travel agency, Ctrip, which wanted to expand while controlling office space costs. They instituted a remote work trial, expecting that productivity would slip a little, but not enough to cancel out the savings. Instead, productivity shot up 13%, and attrition dropped 50%. When the work from home option was rolled out to the entire company and employees were given a choice, the productivity gains were 22%.
Those gains are impressive, but it is important to keep in mind that the Ctrip employees are just doing call center work that requires little creativity or collaboration. The trust and teamwork essential for innovation in today’s business world benefit from some in-person interaction, and a Gallup report backs that up.
Gallup found that a remote work option improved engagement and employee satisfaction—but only up to a point. The most engaged employees were those who worked remotely part of the time, anywhere from 60% to 80%. Beyond that, remote work produced diminishing returns. In fact, the least engaged employees were those who worked remotely 100% of the time.
“Working remotely is most effective when there’s a home-office balance,” the report concludes. The optimal home-office balance will vary from industry to industry and within a company. Leaders and managers have to consider the nature of the work and the personality type of the employee.
The larger mission facing business leaders is to design a work experience that gets the best out of each employee. While Bloom’s findings and conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt, they do suggest some broader lessons.
Flexibility and autonomy pay off
It is no accident that productivity at the travel agency was boosted even further once the element of choice was introduced. Choice is empowering, and empowered employees are more engaged and productive.
Leaders and managers can apply that lesson in a multitude of ways, even in those cases where remote work is not feasible. We all operate according to a different underlying circadian rhythm. Some of us get our best work done in the morning, while others get off to a slow start and hit their stride later in the day.
Learn to work with your employees’ natural tendencies and dispositions. Identify when, how, and where they do their best work and build from there. Replicate the freedom and flexibility remote workers enjoy.
There are countless ways of introducing more autonomy into your workplace. Granting an employee creative leeway over how to approach a task demonstrates trust and belief in their abilities. There is great power to the simple question, “What do you think?”
In cases where remote work is feasible at least part of the time, work within the realities of an employee’s unique situation rather than applying one-size-fits-all solutions. When you empower employees to manage all areas of their lives better, they will be more energized and engaged—and produce better results.
Focus is critical
Advocates of remote work agree that one of the significant advantages of working from home is being free from the distractions of the workplace. Those distractions have multiplied with the advent of open design office spaces which foster communication and collaboration but can make concentration difficult.
The design firm Gensler, a proponent of open design, acknowledges that when it comes to creating a balance between focus and collaboration, focus comes first. Leaders who want productive employees must do everything in their power to enable and ensure the ability to focus, and office design is only one part of the equation.
Once again it is essential to understand and appreciate individual differences. Some of us enjoy being surrounded by bustle and buzz and feed off that energy. Others require the silence of a library. Create quiet zones in your workplace for those who need it. Identify introverts and actively solicit their ideas about how they can get their best work done.
Productivity arises when we give employees meaningful and challenging work, and then give them the resources necessary to do it. Focus is a critical resource. Think of yourself as a guardian of concentration.
Mix it up
The Gallup report talks about attaining the right home-office balance. Balance is good, but the importance of variety may be the more impactful takeaway from the remote work studies.
Remote workers report enjoying the freedom to juggle their days in ways that keep them energized. If you are stuck on a problem, you can go outside and take a walk around the block without looking like you are wasting time. After you finish putting together a big presentation, you can reward yourself and blow off some steam by doing a quick workout. It is well-established that multi-tasking is not a productive approach to work. On the other hand, switching tasks when we are stuck or losing energy is a great way to maintain focus and engagement. Frequent short breaks can refresh our minds and our bodies.
Business leaders should actively inject a sense of play into the workplace, give employees the freedom to recharge and shift gears and encourage people to shake up well-worn routines. An organizational culture where being glued to one’s desk for hours at a time is seen as a sign of devotion and hard work is not a productive one. It is counter-productive and not sustainable long-term.
Gallup finds that the percentage of employees working at least part of the time remotely has been rising steadily in recent years. Those numbers are part of a larger trend in which today’s workers increasingly value autonomy, flexibility, variety, and choice. Smart business leaders will stay ahead of the curve and continuously look for ways to make those values central to their organizational culture.
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Published on Oct. 12, 2018
Click here to read the article on Forbes.com