A closer look at where the Stanford researchers found a drop in productivity leads one, for instance, to a study of data entry workers working from home. This immediately raises several questions, because besides being one of the most monotonous tasks a person can do at home, it is also completely unclear whether these workers’ domestic conditions were conducive to productive work.
All a matter of perspective?
In presenting the case for the benefits of hybrid working, the paper cites a study of call centre workers who took fewer breaks and less sick leave. But if one measures productivity in those terms, it may well be that one mainly captures increased pressure at work and presenteeism. These examples demonstrate how difficult it is to select a good metric for productivity, and that considering a metric without context will have little explanatory power. This lack of clarity in conceptions of productivity results in people being able to cherry-pick the arguments that support their own convictions and subjective appraisals.
Companies need to focus on these highly personal convictions to make meaningful use of the opportunities presented by new modes of working – and by new technologies as well. Most fundamentally, these convictions concern people’s motivation to work and, ideally, to do a good job. The Stanford paper cites another study in which employees claimed that working from home increased their productivity, while their supervisors argued the opposite. Both positions, in fact, have little to do with productivity and much more to do with how we conceive human nature. I am confident that if supervisors were solely to evaluate their own work from home, they would also claim they were more productive – provided that they actually like working from home.
Understanding different perspectives – more important than 2/3 or 3/2
Ongoing discussions about, for example, whether it’s more productive working two days from home and three days in the office, or vice versa (3/2), are not particularly fruitful. Instead, an earnest and open discussion about new modes of working should enable people to examine, discuss and revise their often implicit assumptions about human nature. Only then can a constructive debate begin to determine which modes of working are best suited for whom and for which jobs.