Workplace: The New 9-to-5 Oxymoron?

Why do we expect people to work well when they’re being interrupted at the office all day long?

Jason Fried, founder of programming company Basecamp and author of REMOTE: Office Not Required (2013), has spent over a decade asking people in different work settings a simple question:

‘Where do you go when you really need to get something done at work?’

Think about it for a minute, you’ve just had a 1-on-1 with your manager, who has requested an unanticipated, big, gnarly report in his inbox by 8:00 am tomorrow so he can show it to the Board.

Where do you go? What do you do?

Fried reports that the answers typically come in three flavors: space, motion, and time:

  • Those favoring space cite going to the coffee shop or library when they really need to work.
  • Those favoring motion point to the train during the daily commute or on a plane in between sales meetings as their productive motion.
  • Others go to the office, but get important work done early in the morning or late in the evening, after the hustle and bustle of the standard workday, hence the time designation.

“You almost never hear someone say, ‘The office,’” Fried blasts during a TED Talk in 2010, “and yet businesses spend all this money on [a] place called the office, and… [make] people go to it all the time…”

To further illustrate the ridiculous nature of our current workplace traditions, Fried follows-up by comparing the antiquated term ‘going to work’ with the equally erroneous phrase ‘going to sleep.’

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The commonalities of sleep and work cycles

“People say you go ‘to’ sleep, but you don’t go to sleep, you go towards sleep…. and if you’re interrupted, you don’t sleep well. …Sleep and work are very closely related… [both] are stage-based events. Sleep is about phases… There are five of them, and in order to get to the meaningful ones, you have to go through the early ones. If you’re interrupted while you’re going through the early [stages]… you don’t just pick up where you left off… So [would you] expect someone to sleep well if they’re interrupted all night? I don’t think anyone would say yes… [So] why do we expect people to work well if they’re being interrupted all day at the office?”

Other prominent figures are joining Fried’s commentary on the fight against the traditional office mindset:

“In thirty years time, as technology moves forward… people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed.” - Richard Branson

“Things are different. So we can’t keep operating like everything is the same, and that’s what many of us have done. And I think it’s up to us to change the conversation.” — Michelle Obama, former first lady

As Fried and other champions of remote working persuasively argue, why would any 21st Century business interested in optimizing performance and, thus, profits, subject their employees to operate in a less-than-optimal physical location?

In 2013, Harvard graduate student James Liang joined forces with Stanford Economics Professor, Nicholas Bloom, to test how remote working might affect productivity.

They ran their experiment over nine months and their now oft-cited findings were published in the Harvard Business Review (2014).

In their test 50% of Liang’s workforce at Ctrip, a Chinese travel website, were given the opportunity to work from home. The other half stayed put in the office.

Here’s what they found

  • Improved total productivity between 20% to 30%
  • 13.5% more call completions than office staff, which was equivalent to almost an entire extra workday of work per week
  • Attrition (people quitting) fell by 50% compared to office staff
  • Savings of $2,000 a year per employee

Other companies have uncovered similar organizational benefits in going remote.

In the early 2000’s, JetBlue began enabling workers to work as far as three hours from headquarters. When asked about the policy, JetBlue management said it has helped them gain access to educated, high-ability mothers who wanted flexibility in their jobs.

Today, the company’s call center is the homes of hundreds of remote workers, also saving the company significant costs on office space, furniture, etc.

Aetna, a leader in the US for health insurance, has been championing the practice of remote work for over 20 years. As reported in a 2015 Fortune article, entitled “Lessons learned from 3 companies that have long embraced remote work,” author Sara Sutton Fell reports that “Over 31 percent of [Aetna’s] employees engage in telework, and it is embedded into [their] HR policies and practices.”

One of Aetna’s key motivators for remote working has been the reported savings they’ve witnessed as a company, both financially and environmentally:

“Through telework, Aetna has seen benefits like saving between 15 percent and 25 percent of real estate and related costs, and largely reducing the company’s carbon footprint. Aetna’s teleworkers drive 65 million fewer miles per year, saving over two million gallons of gas, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by over 23,000 metric tons annually.”

In each of these examples we see physical work location as the prime variable, but the results are much more complex than merely where people park their butts to get work done.

How much output and loyalty is tied to remote working versus a people-first approach is not directly addressed in the companies highlighted, but there are plenty of big players willing to argue that providing the option of remote working has nothing to do with putting people first in the 21st century.

Look for a follow-up article tomorrow on the defenders of in-office work over remote work.

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