What to Read Next
We cannot know the exact contours of what’s ahead in the coming months for the global economy and our places in it. What we do know is that there is a major recession on the horizon and that executive focus will inevitably be on cutting costs and boosting productivity. How can productivity best be achieved in the hybrid home-office working circumstances many companies will be experiencing?
In a poll I conducted during a May 7 webinar with executives from 42 companies across 19 countries, 47% said they believed productive collaboration seemed stronger than before the pandemic. They talked about the positive impact of dismantling bureaucratic processes, using newfound digital skills, and unleashing the energy of shared goals.
That’s good news — for now. But it may not be sustainable in the months to come as fatigue sets in, uncertainty continues, and the all-new challenges of remote work become the norm.
Research Updates From MIT SMR
Get weekly updates on how global companies are managing in a changing world.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
At one company whose leaders I talked to, the CEO’s mantra is “React, respond, rebuild.” I like that. I think most companies are currently in the state of reacting and responding. It’s now time to take a close look at the question of what the rebuilding phase might look like, specifically in the context of home-office working.
The short answer is that rebuilding will require a combination of technology deployment and job redesign. But the longer answer is that there is no generic singular solution. Instead, rebuilding will depend a great deal on the tasks of the jobs being performed by home workers and — especially importantly — the extent of productive collaboration they require.
Three Job Types, Three Sets of Responses
Let me broadly illustrate this by looking at the characteristics of three categories of jobs: a call center worker, engaged in tasks that are routine and autonomous — meaning they are standardized and can be performed independently, without collaboration; an accountant, engaged in tasks that are less routine, with an element of collaboration with team members; and a product developer, engaged in nonroutine tasks with high elements of collaborating innovatively both within the team and out into a wider network.
Highly routine and autonomous (example: the call center worker). There is long-established evidence that home working boosts the productivity of call center workers by around 13% while reducing costs — in part through higher retention rates, of around 50%, and in part through savings on office space. All told, the savings shown in Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom’s study of Chinese call center workers were equivalent to an extra day’s work per week per employee. That’s a strong financial incentive for companies to embrace having workers whose jobs are similarly routine and autonomous work from home.
The call center workers in that study had private spaces in their homes to work in — which can be important for productivity. But after the nine-month trial period of the study, half decided to return to the office because they felt too isolated at home. Although call center work is not a collaborative task, for some workers a degree of social interaction is crucial to their long-term engagement.
With this in mind, the combination of rebuilding actions for these types of roles looks like this:
- Deploy home technology. Many routine jobs are at the lower end of the pay scale, and employers can’t assume that employees have computers and internet access that match what is available at an office. It is crucial that employers step in and make sure home workers are supported with a home office that supports their role’s technological specifications.
- Design events to boost sociability. In the short term at the very least, the company should encourage and host virtual coffee mornings and social events.
- Design the job so that work can happen in blocks of time. Especially while kids are still at home, redesign home-based work to establish “on” and “off” blocks of time. This will help employees manage their home-work boundaries by establishing an undisturbed work period before switching to domestic and caring duties. While this recommendation applies to all three types of jobs, it is especially useful for roles where employees are on the clock for specific periods of time.
Less routine with some team collaboration (example: the accountant). Accounting jobs have long had a significant element of autonomous tasks — that’s why there is a sizable group of accountants who are already home-based and enjoying flexible work. There is an element of collaboration in these jobs, in the sense of creating and maintaining knowledge flows within teams. That might include hearing about how colleagues have worked through the latest tax rules or the specific needs of clients. These collaborations often draw from individuals’ networks of strong ties with other team members with whom they share a history and friendship and are significant parts of the job.
In my May 7 webinar poll, 70% of executives said they believed that their small working teams were currently highly productive. To keep productivity high for this type of work, rebuilding should include these actions:
- Deploy asynchronous technology. Virtual communication is perfect for this type of collaboration. The challenge is to get the balance right between asynchronous communication (like email and blog posts), which establishes knowledge flows, and synchronous communication (like Zoom or Microsoft Teams videoconferencing), to bring groups together in real time.
- Design occasional face-to-face team meetings. As office time returns, it makes sense to put a premium on social and relaxed events to reinforce empathy and trust within groups.
Nonroutine and highly collaborative, with an innovative aspect (example: the product developer). Product developers and similar types of roles have a crucial innovative element that comes from two types of collaboration.
The first type is the cross-boundary network, which connects different teams. For the product developer, for example, this could mean connecting marketing knowledge with production knowledge. It is this combination that is the basis of much of the technological mash-up innovation we see today.
The second type is the serendipitous network, created through chance encounters. This includes the so-called weak ties with acquaintances that form when people simply bump into each other, which can be a rich source of innovation. Interestingly, in the same webinar poll, 29% said the serendipity of novel combinations was lower than it had been at the start of the pandemic.
To rebuild these networks in home-based workforces, companies should take these actions:
- Deploy collaborative technology that encourages serendipitous interactions. For knowledge workers who thrive on creative collaboration beyond what’s facilitated by project management technology, the real challenge is to create serendipity — those valuable chance encounters — in a virtual space. That’s what the executive team of a global telecommunications company I was consulting with had in mind in early May when they used a collaborative moderated “jam” platform to bring together more than 20,000 people to talk about how culture could support the newly emerging business strategy. We watched as “jammers” created more than 2,000 conversational threads during the 72-hour session. In a series of follow-ups, these chance encounters formed the basis of new and more diverse networks.
- Design the job for chance encounters. This is the aspect that will require the most ingenuity and experimentation. With face time at a premium, the challenge will be to ensure that every face-to-face encounter has an innovative possibility. Watch out for hybrid virtual/face-to-face events to emerge over the coming months.
The emerging way of working can bring real upsides in terms of better quality of life and work-life balance. It’s a major shock that has broken some old habits and created some new ones. The challenge we face now is to learn how best to replicate the serendipity of chance encounters. The petri dish of experiments that are emerging should provide the foundation for a more nuanced view of technological deployment and job design.