“Working from Home” is a Just a Euphemism for Higher Productivity

Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com, courtesy of Sil Silv
“Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com.”  Photo courtesy of Sil Silv.

Mother’s Day weekend has passed, and the emotional roller-coaster has come and gone.  You may have spent time reflecting about what is important to you.  Are your many hours at work meaningful for your personal growth and the home life you desire?  Thankfully, there is a mixed blessing available for those who want better trade-offs: the option to work from home.

There is a lively debate about the virtues of working from home, and we all know why it’s controversial.  You have the freedom to alternate between hard work and lazy selfishness in a manner that makes you feel guilty and sheepish.  Am I the only one who washes bedsheets while I’m trying to figure out how to solve a work puzzle?  I feel bad about the housework, but I forget to take credit that my brain is fully engaged in work.

The Case For Working From Home

The case in favour of working from home comes from a study that was summarized nicely in an article by Bill Murphy Jr. at Inc.com.  Murphy reviewed a study of call centre employees in China who participated in a 9-month pilot.  The employer randomly-selected one half of the pilot group to work from home while the others came into the office.  Call centres have great tracking systems to measure productivity, so they were able to analyze the impact.

The gains were many.  Employees who worked from home saved the company $2,000 per year in office space.  They put 9% more time into productive work hours.  They were 14% more efficient with their time, taking fewer breaks and less sick time.  Their turnover was 50% lower.

Their mothers would be proud.

The Case Against Working From Home

Of course, working from home is not always the best way to collaborate.  Over at the Atlantic, Jerry Useem advances evidence that working face-to-face is better for collaboration.  He cites research by Judith Olson of UC Irvine who worked on an experiment with Ford in the late 1990s that put software developers in a war room.  It was called “radical colocation.”  The close-proximity teams completed their work in one third of the time relative to other groups.  In another study, a simulated cockpit crew in a crammed space were able to able to communicate a major issue in 24 seconds through hand motions and non-verbal utterances.  Face-time and direct communication can be critical for efficient teamwork and collaboration.

The Best Decisions are Sensitive to Context

What is notable is that the evidence twists and turns depending on context.  Call centres are all about the dynamic the employee and customer, so collaborations with work peers might be unimportant.  By contrast, work that is built around face-to-face communication demands proximity.  This would not be the first time that the research on optimal workforce practices concludes that it depends on the context of the business and the mindset of the individual employee.

That research Murphy cited was a paper entitled “Does Working from Home Work?  Evidence from a Chinese Experiment”, by Nicholas Bloom et al, a working paper from the NBER from March 2013.  I gave it a closer read, and there was a lot of nuance not picked up by the business press.

For example, commuting distance had a big impact on productivity differences.  Those whose commute time was more than two hours per day saw dramatic improvements in their productivity when working from home.  This finding is consistent with a theory in labour economics called the labour-leisure model, that suggests people start with an endowment of weekly hours and make trade-offs between their personal life and work life.  Commuting subtracts from the hours-endowment, and if you give those people the option to work from home, they will apply more hours to their work and also to themselves.  The interests of work and home are not always a dichotomy, as both are sabotaged by commuting.

During the experiment, people had been assigned to work from home on a randomized basis.  When employees were given the opportunity to choose, half of them chose to come to the office instead.  They were mostly concerned they would be passed over from promotion.  Employees working from home were 50% less likely to receive a performance-based promotion, which is outrageous when you consider they were more productive.  They were “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”  I see a side-story about the social contract.  The employer figured out how to spend less money on office space and stop promoting their most productive people, and the employees said “no thanks” and started showing up at the office again.

About 10% of the people who had not volunteered for the experiment chose to work from home after the pilot was opened-up for wider participation.  Once it became increasingly obvious who would benefit and who would be disadvantaged, several people still chose working from home.  This highlights the immense impact of giving people autonomy over how their work lives should be organized.  Any two people can make decisions that go in opposite directions, based on their unique preferences.

May of the employees who chose to return to the office after the experiment rightly perceived that they were less productive when working from home.  When those employees started working in the office again, this self-selection had a contrast-effect on the more-productive workers who continued to work from home.  During the experiment home-workers were 14% more productive, but once self-selection was permitted home workers were 25% more productive.  The impact was almost doubled.

Human Nature Out-Ranks The Logistics

I think it’s important to flag that autonomy itself had a positive impact that was about as important as a comprehensive workplace redesign.  That is, executive decision-making struggles to prove its worth against the impact of a positive workplace culture where people can self-select into higher productivity.

One of the main drivers for increased productivity was that people working from home worked when they were slightly ill.  I have to confess, I have done this myself.  Partially-sick work-from-home days are win-win for employee and employer.  This practice reduces office contagion, gets a mostly productive work-day from the employee who might otherwise be doing nothing, and gives the employee some control over their guilt and workload.

When sick, people need the comforts of home to get well and stay well.  Maybe a family member will bring them a nice bowl of chicken soup that gives them a sense that all is right in the world.

But there’s a catch.  Young people who live with their parents don’t want to work from home.  When people were free to choose, these young people came to the office in order to escape their family.  Thanks for the soup, mom, I love you dearly.  But would you please stop telling me how to format my presentations, deal with the workplace bully, and get along with my colleagues?  I need to choose my own life.

Side Hustles – The Great Employment Equalizers

Taylor Reynolds, courtesy of John Sturgis 3
Taylor Reynolds.  Photo courtesy of John Sturgis.

There is a great new buzzword making the rounds, and it deserves some profile.  The concept is the “side hustle,” outside-of-work activity that keeps people interested while making a bit of extra money.  People who have a good side-hustle have great things to say about it.

Side hustles are jobs that pay you to learn, so consider them “real-world” MBAs as Sam McRoberts refers to them as in this article in Entrepreneur.com. You are likely to learn sales, negotiation, and website design.  Several authors note that you are obliged to learn a lot of time management skills.  There’s nothing quite like being overly-busy with something you love to motivate you to organize your day properly.

Amongst the benefits of side hustles, one of the biggest is figuring out what you want to do with your life.  We have all had day-jobs that weren’t thrilling.  The idea is, name your biggest passion, get out and do it, and explore if that kind of work is really for you.  It’s important for those in early-career who are still trying to find their calling.  One millennial, Samantha Matt, wrote a 2015 blog post in the Huffington Post in which she cuts to the heart.

“Even if you’re not 100 percent happy at your day job, if you’ve got something in the works on the side that you absolutely love, that will ultimately lead to happiness…”

She talks about a number of functional career outcomes but you can tell from her tone that she’s just wildly ambitious and wants a career that is engaging and taking her places.

 “…when I first started out, writing a book was not something that was in the cards. With a side hustle, you learn to always stay hungry and that will get you climbing the career ladder to success faster than you ever imagined.”

Mike Templeman in an article from Forbes describes increased opportunities to network, as the side-hustle opens you up to new a whole community.  There’s nothing like sincere conversations about a labour-of-love to open up connections with a community of peers.  Samantha Matt is doing what she loves, and she doesn’t mind doing the kind of thing that people normally think of as soul-sucking.  She now enjoys chasing the dollar, she is motivated to work extra hours, and she is building her resume as a thrill.  She can network for fun.

Don’t you wish you could have this life?  At work, don’t we all wish that our peers or our employees could also have this kind of motivation?

Templeman describes how the extra energy from his side-hustle gave him more energy in his day job.  His regular workplace “…was a place for me to socialize and push my limits… I started getting promoted because I was putting in extra effort all over the place and my ideas were getting recognized.”  He describes an increased willingness to be creative in the workplace, because he had energy and mojo.

For the uninitiated, intrinsic motivation is that sense of acting on drives that come from inside you… to follow your heart, as it were.  By contrast, society is often prescribing what you ought to do, and those prescriptions can make joy disappear.  The big secret about side hustles is that by disregarding society’s prescriptions you can become more successful.  And that is because you are listening to yourself, driving yourself, and putting in a stronger effort.

It’s a much-needed improvement on the idea that you should “follow your dreams.”  You might have met people who caused themselves great harm by abandoning something secure in favour of a semi-delusional dream.  What is different about the side-hustle, is that you have the option of holding onto the security while making safe experiments with your dream career.  The side hustle gives you permission to fail.

As I described in my review of the McKinsey research on the Gig Economy, the key to gigs is that they are fulfilling if they are voluntary.  Voluntary-ness is more important than the amount of money earned in terms of job satisfaction.  But the money can arise from the higher productivity associated with motivation and courage.

Where does this courage come from?  Some of it comes from developing your own bargaining power.  McRoberts asserts that having a single point of failure is brutal to your career mobility.

“So why is it that most individuals have just one income? A single income means you’re trapped. You have fewer options, you’re in a weaker position to negotiate, and you’re in bad shape if that main-stream income happens to goes [sic] away. Granted, employers typically want it that way, because it puts them in a position of power.”

People are deciding that the expectation of devout loyalty to one employer is a con job.  How can any employee in this crazy world express faith that their current employer will take care of them for years to come?  As employees we need to develop our BATNA, short for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.  In bargaining theory, a strong BATNA gives you something in your back-pocket that protects you from exploitation and allows you to be calmly brave when you ask for more.  Your bargaining alternative is critical to the game of life in which everything is negotiable.

One last important point comes from Templeman when he notes you still need to check that you’re not breaking any rules with your employer.  So yes, you need to be calculating, and cautious, and shrewd.  Only then can you get on with it and follow your dreams.

Look at Her Go! Achieving the Perfect Quit

Sigrid practicing. By Victor Valore
Sigrid practicing.  Photo courtesy of Victor Valore.

This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people.  To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust.  Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay.  That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.

The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development.  He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people.  Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life.  These can be good people to work with.

What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”?  The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like moments after the diver has taken flight.  But in the years prior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal?  This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.

This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state.  A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.

Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level.   It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity.  These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave.  If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager should get the biggest bonus.

But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation.  Perhaps the millennials were right?  Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.

Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions.  So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward.  Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.

But it gets better.

Falkman suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well.  Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand.  Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors.  You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.

Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously.  This is one of the good ones.

Quitters May Be Your Most Valued Resource

209365 - What Goes Around... by Adam Wyles (=)
209365 – What Goes Around… Photo courtesy of Adam Wyles.
Do you ever get that strange feeling when someone leaves your workplace that the work friendship is finished?  It’s an odd feeling, but you need to get past it.  That’s because the relationship continues to be  important even when your former colleague is working elsewhere.

“Boomerang employees” are people who have left a workplace and then come back.  Boomerangs are an emerging trend because people are changing jobs more frequently.  It’s posing new challenges in the way we think about work.  Several of the major insights about boomerangs are reviewed in a study from September 2015, from the Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and WorkplaceTrends.com.

In brief, employers are developing more mature opinions.

“Based on survey results, nearly half of HR professionals claim their organization previously had a policy against rehiring former employees – even if the employee left in good standing – but 76 percent say they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today than in the past. Managers agree, as nearly two-thirds said they are more accepting of hiring back former colleagues.”

A majority of managers and HR professionals give high priority to job applicants who had left in good standing.  The warm feelings go both ways, with nearly 40 percent of employees seriously considering going back to a former employer.

Brendan Browne, VP of global talent acquisition at LinkedIn, notes in an article in Business Insider that “…jumping between jobs doesn’t mean that employees today are less loyal. Rather, the concept of loyalty has simply evolved. Employees might move around more, but they also remain much more connected to former employers.”

Getting The Best Out Of Boomerang Employees

What about the nitty gritty about how we would go about this?  First, there is the business case for favoring a returning employee.  According to Browne, Boomerangs are;

already familiar with… [the organization’s] culture. There is an established employee-employer relationship that adds another layer of employee loyalty to the company, which in turn leads to increased retention. Boomerangs that have been away for a few years also have direct business value, as they bring with them new experiences, connections, points-of-view, and even potential customers.” (Emphasis added)

Molly Moseley in a blog post adds that “…you know their skills firsthand — strengths and weaknesses — so there shouldn’t be any big surprises.”  That assumes that the employer has a fresh memory or has kept the good records about the employee’s history.

There can be pitfalls, for sure.  Moseley asserts that employers must answer one question “Why did they leave in the first place?  …You must have this conversation, get a clear answer and ensure all parties have agreed on the resolution. Did they leave for higher pay, a promotion, shorter commute, better benefits? Whatever it is, are you able to amend that problem?”

Kevin Mason in an article in TLNT echoes this sentiment about knowing their reasons for quitting.  Mason also identifies a double-edged sword of employee morale.  If people were sad to see this employee leave in the first place, there can be a boost in morale when they return.  However, it’s also possible that people were happy to see them go, and their return can be bad for morale.  Mason says “It’s critical to get the pulse of your key players before bringing an employee back.”

Fostering Employee Engagement With Former Employees

How do you go about actively recruiting boomerang employees?  Browne makes a comparison to alumni engagement efforts with college and university students:

“While the idea of keeping alumni invested used to be confined to academia, it’s now a growing trend in the workforce. LinkedIn’s alumni program started out as a LinkedIn group that a few alumni employees created on their own in 2014. Today, our in-house alumni network has more than 3,300 members, which includes both current employees and alumni. That way, alumni can build relationships and feel like they are still part of the company.”

It’s notable that of all the social media button-click things we can do to cultivate this talent pool, the key concern is the underlying shift in workplace culture and opinions about employee engagement.

Joyce Maroney from the Workforce Institute says that “it’s more important than ever for organizations to create a culture that engages employees – even long after they’re gone.”  It’s the ultimate de-silo-ing of the people under your span of control.  You’re not just responsible for engaging those outside your own reporting relationship; you also need to engage those who have left the organization entirely.

This idea that a career is a series of adventures maps easily to Millennials.  Millennials change jobs more quickly (because they are younger) and are therefore more likely to be boomerang hires, according to Dan Schawbel of WorkplaceTrends.com.  And let’s not forget that if you’re a socially responsible leader, you’ll take an interest in mentoring these people regardless of whether it’s right for the corporate bottom line.  There is an onus on good managers to also be good people.

In the employee’s eye, former employers take on the status of old friends, places they have visited, and books they have enjoyed that they still keep on the shelf.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just stay connected, live a varied life, and seek meaningful work in which we’re encouraged to grow?  Employers will need to find people who want to put in the extra effort to cultivate this dynamic environment?  How about you?  Do you want to help build this kind of workplace?

Forget About Strategy. Reality is a Mosh Pit

CROWD S U R F E R. By Keami Hepburn
CROWD S U R F E R. Photo courtesy of Keami Hepburn.

Strategy is not superior to tactics.  At best, strategy and tactics can be integrated as equals.  In this day and age it is looking increasingly unlikely that a senior leader will come up with one brilliant idea from the top of the organization and cascade it downward through the chain of command.  Rather, we live in a world where ground-level employees determine business success; information is diffused through friends and cube-mates; and the best ideas move diagonally through the organization’s subject-matter experts with minimal regard for the org chart.

A classic example of the disputed importance of strategy is the difference between Workforce Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning.  I routinely use Workforce Analytics to help a variety of managers and professionals adapt to an unpredictable array of questions.  Workforce Analytics has a kind of “older sister” business practice called Strategic Workforce Planning which has been around for a little longer.  Strategic Workforce Planning is the practice of using analytics in the formal process or organizational re-design.  The re-design is intended to align human resources to internal and external context, a forecast about the future, and organizational strategy.  It makes perfect sense on paper.

In my opinion, there are three major frustrations with strategic alignment.  First, it makes a presumption that organizational strategy in your organization is in its prime.  If your org strategy is in its final approval stage or a complete re-write of that strategy is about to begin, then alignment to that strategy is a dubious effort.  Second, if any of the organization’s major leaders are in transition (both incoming and outgoing) their personal enthusiasm for the formal strategy could be in play.  To some extent, strategy is a debate amongst executives, and that debate can shift as the players are in flux.

Third, forecasting is a moving target.  In the middle of the Strategic Workforce Planning process there is an attempt to identify a future state and assess scenarios where a different staff composition would prepare the organization for that future.  However, society is changing so quickly and in so many ways that speculation about any likely future state has the shelf life of about a month.  Try writing down your predictions about the future on a piece of paper and then come back to it in 30 days.  With the passage of time you will either be humbled, or you will assert that it’s been doctored and you couldn’t have written something so clueless.  As such, alignment to strategy is brief, making the overall process less tangible and less relevant.

A good example of the struggles of strategic alignment is Uber.  Uber appears to have been built around a culture of rules-breaking on taxi licensing, grey-ethics exploitation of private information about a customer’s physical location, and a backroom culture of dot-com, locker-talk bravado.  With just a little bit of blowback from the public, Uber has been obliged to change senior leaders and reverse elements of the very organizational culture that made it great.  Good luck identifying what their sector will look like in two months, what this week’s executive team is going to do about it, and calibrating staff accordingly.  They might be fine in the near future, but we won’t really know until after the fact.

Consider by contrast an impactful tactical change which adapts to emerging evidence.  There is evidence that an equitable and inclusive work environment fosters better commitment and idea sharing.  There is evidence that workplace incivility has a dramatic impact on general productivity.  There is evidence that customer engagement is hyper-sensitive to employee engagement.  It is possible to develop a supposition that millennials are quitting at a higher rate, only to discover evidence that this is more nuanced and is really about career advancement at all ages.  These insights can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s opinion about what their core function should be, how managers should treat employees, and what kinds of employees and managers you should be hiring or promoting.

Then you would need to double-down and anticipate that even more disruptive evidence will continue to arrive at an even faster rate.  And if you did not adapt in this manner, you can bank on the fact that this adaptation is happening at rival organizations.  This brings us back to the possibility of even more leadership change and yet another re-vamp of organizational strategy.

If you are a manager, a human resource leader, or an analyst you might need to abandon all delusions that you can chart a clear path.  Rather, you are in the mosh pit of life, and your prime directive is to keep moving and not get hurt.  Keep your tempo, have fun, and follow the mood.  You cannot simply obey the directives of those with money or rank.  You must arrive at work fresh and rested, and play hard.  Every day.

Service With a Smile

GS Cashier. By Derek A.
GS Cashier. Photo courtesy of Derek A.

What’s with all this bold talk from millennials?  Don’t they know to keep hush about their outlandish opinions?  In a recent article from Lisa Earle McLeod the author submits an open letter (closer to a manifesto) that explains why millennials have the opinions they have.

She has two key points.  First, employers are tolerating poor performers, and those poor performers drag everyone else down, including highly-motivated millennials.  It’s not so much that millennials are unreasonably ambitious and over-eager, it is that their enthusiasm is the correct attitude and lower-functioning colleagues should not be setting the pace.  Fair ball.

Secondly, we must give our work purpose.  Organizations that have “a purpose bigger than money” have better business results.  This purpose-driven organization is reminiscent of Simon Sinek’s Power of Why although McLeod’s critique is closer to a sense of Noble Purpose amongst the sales team, a major concern of hers.

This focus on enthusiastic front-line staff is consistent with other critiques.  Josh Bersin notes that many organizations are flipping their hierarchy to place priority on engaged employees first, who then attract and retain customers who, in turn, keep the profits alive.  If it works, go for it.