Working from home – does it really work?

What makes the difference whether or not WFH works well?

It looks as if we are gradually moving into a steadier situation in relation to the pandemic. This in turn has been triggering more discussions in organisations about working from home or in the office. When you look through various studies conducted about productivity in WFH patterns you get the impression that you can choose the reports depending on what outcome you would like to read about. Indeed, some claim that productivity has dropped significantly when people work from home. Others present figures that show a boost in efficiency and productivity. I believe the truth is connected to the type of work and working conditions of the people and the mindset of those responding to the surveys or interviews. 
Con-TACT: working from home (WFH) with teddy bears

Considering some role conflicts or overload some people, especially (in the old role models) female professionals, were in, doing their own job parallel to childcare and/or home-schooling and managing the household no one should be surprised that the productivity of these people in their professional job is lower in a WFH pattern.

When speaking with leaders about their experience with WFH in their organisations or teams I can clearly recognise why research studies produce different results.

Mindset matters

Some conversations with leaders who testify that productivity is lower when people are not working in the office also reveal that they themselves are convinced that working from home is not productive.
They also admit, possibly inadvertently, that they would need to see people in the office around them working on their jobs. In a study conducted in Germany, more than 25% of leaders admitted that they fear ‘loss of control’ over their direct reports when they are not working in the office. Hence, no one should be surprised that people working with such a leader may have less favourable conditions created by the organisation/their leader to be highly productive when working from home.
Obviously, if a leader believes that people need supervision and control to be productive why should he/she think about what could be done to support people working from home to maximise their productivity. Maybe these leaders’ mindset is driven by the old theory X, which assumes that people in general are lazy and need to be pushed to work. From my experience, an assumption that is unfounded for the majority of people working in organisations.
Trust is good, control is better. Or is it?
Con-TACT - Working from home (WFH) works
On the other hand, you can also read interviews with leaders who consider their employees to be highly productive when working from home. When I am speaking with leaders of that category it is noticeably clear that they have trust in the motivation and drive of their people to be productive. Discussing the specific situation with these leaders also reveals that they spoke with their people to understand what they would need to be highly effective in the WFH pattern. In some cases, I even heard that organisations moved office chairs and desks to people’s home if that was necessary to create productive working conditions. When they assess the productivity in their team, they also seem to be able to clearly separate out those team members who had extremely challenging conditions with childcare or home-schooling in times when kindergartens or schools were closed. The mindset of these leaders seems to be rooted in theory Y, assuming that people are intrinsically motivated to be at their best in the job.
I am fully aware that I am presenting a fairly polarised picture. As always, it is not just black-and-white. There are many shades of grey in-between. Yet, the question at hand for many leaders still revolves around what is best for their people and the organisation to be successful and productive?
In the following, I will try to connect examples of what I consider best practice with some of the theoretical explanations why this approach might be most preferable. Of course, this is only valid if the conditions at home allow a reasonably ergonomic and undisturbed workplace and working conditions.

Let them choose!

In some organisations leaders are giving their people the freedom to choose when to work in the office and when to work from home. I would consider this as best practice. 

The freedom to choose where to work from for me represents a high degree of autonomy at work. This is one of the three elements Daniel Pink describes in his book DRIVE. Pink’s research shows that these three elements, purpose-mastery-autonomy, are essential for fostering intrinsic motivation and engagement of people and organisations.
Of course, that alone would not guarantee success. You still must provide purpose and meaning for the work people must perform whether they are in the office or working from home.

I have heard from some leaders that the approach of letting people choose where to work from would-be too risky and potentially detrimental to their output and the performance of teams they are working in. However, I am convinced that most people who really understand the meaning of their contribution and the purpose of their work will make wise decisions, most likely within the team they are embedded in to find the right balance in their working patterns. It is your responsibility as a leader to ensure that people are deeply connected to meaning and purpose of their work. The importance of this aspect has also been revealed in a McKinsey study which I had covered in a recent blog post.

Of course, there may be abuse of the system by a few people. Yet, this should not be the driver to penalise the vast majority of people in the organisation. This reminds me of a statement of a senior HR leader in a large FMCG company who said that it was absurd to put systems in place which try to prevent 3% of the work force misbehaving and penalise 97% with extra layers of control. This implies that it is much better to have faith in the motivation of the 97% and trust that they will not abuse the system rather than the other way round.

I am fully aware that I might miss a point and the approach described might not fully fit your organisation, yet I would still recommend reflecting the willingness of your organisation or yourself to trust the people’s motivation.

Speed of trust

To reflect about trust and how it could help you to enable people to produce better results and make the team and the organisation more successful I highly recommend the book “The speed of trust” written by Stephen Covey. He explains how trust can help you to create the conditions for great success and sustainable productivity in your team or organisation. He describes 13 behaviours he found common to high trust leaders. He provides clear actionable insights which can help you to increase and inspire trust in your people and teams no matter which working pattern they choose to contribute to their team or the organisation.

Dive deeper

And if you like to reflect on this subject further, I am happy to go for a deep dive combining my experience and those of leaders in my network and apply them to  your specific situation. Please feel free to …

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