Alas, all good things come to an end. From dreams of working from the ‘coffice’ to high-speed rail travel to London, not every story has a happy ending. Hybrid working has been around since reliable internet became the norm, so long as you had a laptop or could connect to your company network. Work from home (WFH) policies are a relatively new phenomenon, which saw a surge since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, people rushed online to order new desks, chairs, screens, headsets and webcams to embrace video calls. The benefits of continuity also brought with it time savings and cost savings, perhaps more so for parents, who could now reliably get to the school pickup and drop-off. However, as the following examples show, the shine is coming off the workplace revolution.
A real-life hybrid working and WFH example
The following is a real-life hybrid working example overheard and witnessed by us during October 2023. With no meetings until 10:00, there was ample time to pop out to a local coffee store and secure a shot of caffeine. Entering the establishment at 08:51 on a Wednesday, there was quite the queue. Yes, the line was filled with ‘coffice’ workers with laptop bags and tablet cases in-hand. Nearing the barista, we noticed two groups ‘bumping into each other’ ahead of us. Now, the time was 08:58, and we were about to order an over-priced beverage. This is what was overheard.
Group 1 (2 people ahead of us): “We didn’t see you there. Hey, great to see you. How was your weekend?”
Group 2 (2 people ahead of them): “It was great, thanks. How was yours?”
Group 1: “Pretty busy actually after coming back from holiday. We had a great time, though!”
Group 2: “So, what is the plan for today?”
Group 1: “Just dropped the kids off and we are working here this morning.”
Note: The time is now 08:59 and Group 1 is still waiting to receive their drinks.
Group 2: “Cool. I didn’t realise that you worked from home.”
Group 1: “Actually, she works from home full-time and I am hybrid, so…”
Group 2: “Great. Let me just grab my morning porridge (barista passes across said bowl of hot porridge). Are you here all day?”
Group 1: “No, we will move to [insert name of brasserie in nearby town] for lunch before picking the kids up.”
Note: The time is now 09:01 and laptop bags are swinging in the breeze. The first drink hits the counter for the lady. But, wait! Only half of Group 1 has ordered and paid. The male now places his order and brandishes means of payment. A quick check and it is now 09:03.
Group 2: “We are sitting over there. Join us in a minute, okay? We want to hear about your holiday”
Group 1: “Of course! Ah, here is my drink (as the barista passes across a large beverage).”
Note: We finally make it to the front of the queue and place an order for takeaway drinks at 09:05. We pay and wait. By 09:08, its time to exit stage left and get on with the day. A quick glance to our left observes Group 1 and Group 2 sat around a large table, still wearing jackets and coats. The laptop bags seemed unloved as they were slumped against the table and chair legs on the floor.
Where there is a will, there is a worker
If you are reading this in disgust, chances are that you are either part of Group 1 or Group 2. Alternatively, you may be wondering, “Why so nosey?”. Well, it is fairly hard to ignore the gentleman in the Canada Goose jacket and the lady with the Louis Vuitton bag both relaxed and jovial in the ‘coffice’. For the record, we know that many people successfully perform within hybrid working arrangements and WFH policies. Some have contractual provisions and others have specific needs and circumstances. However, we also hear the views of senior bosses who bemoan waning productivity in white-collar roles. They also increase the responsibilities of those who show willing, simply because so few are doing so at this time.
Given that UK productivity is measured as value added per unit of labour, it is hard to see in numbers when it afflicts white-collar workers. The quiet quitters seem to be having things their own way. The coffice is alive and well and social lives are blossoming. People have more time to spend on the things that they enjoy and less time commuting, lowering stress levels. The trouble is that those at the top are starting to look very hard at the situation. From banks to law firms and retailers to tech firms, many are trying to force people back to base to restore productivity. Employees are countering by leaving, raising disputes, citing new COVID strains and cost-of-living arguments. There is a delicate balance to strike but it seems that hybrid working and work from home policies may need revisiting.
Restoring workforce productivity
It goes without saying that bringing people back to offices is not a silver bullet. You can still work in an office but be a ‘quiet quitter’. You can also work more slowly versus others. What managers and leaders must carefully assess is actual output, behaviour and achievement. Since we are human beings and susceptible to bias, the last conversation or public display of confidence should not decide annual performance ratings and remuneration. Alas, many have worked out the game.
As an example, some years ago, we heard a story about a WFH manager. They were liked and an average performer. However, every year they spent 1 week before their annual performance review in the same room as their boss. For one week only, they dressed immaculately, buzzed around at high speed, started several new initiatives, became highly visible to everyone and boasted of their achievements. The result? They were a top performer. The reality? They gamed the system with availability bias.
Restoring productivity requires what we call the AAA of performance management. Accountability, Approach and Achievements. We want staff to be accountable for delivering objectives, improving the business and solving problems. We also want the approach to resonate with the culture, norms and behaviours we want to model. Finally, we need measurable achievement by the individual, not the work of others passed off as their own.
Getting workers back on track
Here at Think Beyond, we support leaders in achieving their targets – in the right way. We offer services from employee experience research to productivity measurement and workplace transformation to continuous improvement drives. So, if you are experiencing a productivity challenge, simply call us and we will support your objectives.