The remote work debate is on fire. What’s better? Remote, hybrid or office work? Numerous statistics prove that flexible working is the future but there are also reports suggesting the contrary. What’s the truth and how can companies find out more about their employees’ actual work, rather than hours spent in an office? How can they understand people’s preferences instead of trying to guess what’s best for everyone? As I try to bring more light into this topic, I’d like to drive the discussion towards the “how”of working rather than the “where”.
It’s been decades since the “9 to 5” working approach was first introduced. Its goal was to protect employees’ rights by limiting their long hours of work that led to exhaustion and other severe health issues. Today, such an approach is being treated as a norm which impacts an innovative approach towards the notion of “work” in the era of AI, digital collaboration and increased well-being needs. Clocking in and out may seem sensible from a work-life balance perspective but it doesn’t refer to productivity and a results-based working approach at all.
How do we know people are working?
One of the recurring inquiries I’ve encountered in recent years is centered around the question “How can managers know that people are working?”. It seems evident that employees in the office are performing work, right? At the same time it remains unclear what they’re doing if managers can’t see them… Well, I’ve just shared the definition of proximity bias which is the tendency to favour individuals who are physically or socially closer. It’s an unconscious perception that we have as human beings. Everyone has it as our ancestors associated security and a sense of belonging to the tribes they lived in. That feeling was essential to survive hundreds of thousands years ago. No wonder that work from home during the pandemic hasn’t changed it within just a few months.
Now, the problem is that we are constantly addressing the wrong topic. Seeing people doesn’t bring us any closer to assessing their deliverables. Oftentimes, employees carry out their daily responsibilities, while managers remain unaware of their workload distribution, time requirements for task completion, and the specific contributions of individual tasks to overarching objectives. Even when it comes to team collaboration, many managers are unaware of the correlation among team members’ tasks. Sitting in an office with everyone being present just seems sufficient. Everyone is there so things are under control. People are working together, right? Well… maybe proper processes and frameworks should be implemented to start measuring what’s truly going on?
I consistently advocate for the adoption of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) within distributed teams. This measurable goal-setting framework not only fosters positive transformation and enhanced performance but also promotes greater transparency within the team. It empowers individuals to recognize the impact of their efforts on shared objectives, granting them autonomy, a sense of belonging, heightened motivation, engagement, and overall cohesion.
Measuring work rather than presence
At this stage, it’s clear that managers should master precision in their delegation strategies. During regular daily or weekly meetings, it’s advantageous to pose questions like “By when do you anticipate completing this task?” instead of asking, “What are you currently working on?” This approach enables us to comprehensively assess progress, punctuality, and establish trustworthiness over time. The objective is to shift our focus from merely monitoring “work” to emphasizing “deliverables.” On occasion, employees might assert having worked for a full 8-hour duration when, in reality, they accomplished their tasks within significantly less time. Detecting such scenarios can prove challenging. My response to this situation remains consistent: Would we prefer having an employee sit in an office space and pretend to work, despite having already fulfilled their responsibilities?
Should we intentionally “penalize” productive individuals instead of prioritizing goal attainment?
It’s the work outcomes that drive every business. And so, it’s easy to count the deliverables in the manufacturing industry. We think about the number of working hours and impose deliverables to employees. For example, we can easily count how many pieces have been produced within a given time frame. Now, when we think about the service industry, some companies tend to just follow the “9 to 5” approach and work being performed in a physical location. What about the deliverables, measurable goals? Qualitative and quantitative KPIs?
It’s actually been a long time since I started looking for a remote or office work report that is able to show the direct impact of physical presence versus the task completion rate. Guess what? I’m still searching. Many tend to demonize remote work by claiming that it negatively impacts motivation, belonging and even productivity. But how do we really know that it was any better in an office? Where’s the data? Also, working with both onsite businesses as well as numerous remote-first companies worldwide, I must admit with full confidence that mature, distributed organizations are much more structured and efficient. It’s a data-backed fact that I’ve observed throughout my professional career.
The roots of the remote work clash
Of course, there’s pushback against remote work that’s coming from the real estate industry. I don’t blame them as they’re losing money. I’d also worry… However, the group of remote-resistant business leaders is much bigger. From renowned brands to local businesses, we can always find someone who will contradict any arguments advocating for flexible working. Why is that so? Well, my response to that is: “We don’t know what we don’t know”.
Most of the world associates remote work with pandemic work from home. This comes with an overnight virtual toolkit adaptation, numerous limitations due to lockdowns and overall chaos… In other words, the image of remote work is associated with an emergency solution that nobody had any control over. So imagine you’re a manager in an old-school business… The only thing you can do is panic, hoping that things will “return to normal”.
Let me surprise you if you still haven’t figured it out. There’s no “return to normal”. In the digital era where AI is knocking at almost every business door, nothing will be the way it was 30, 50, 70 years ago. Instead of questioning the present, it seems more sensible to spend this time on adaptation, upskilling and reskilling ourselves, and the teams. So let’s stop tracking time and presence but focus on improving the quality of work in today’s rapidly changing and challenging business reality.