Allen Harris: What is working from home, really? | Company


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Working from home can lead to increased production, but columnist Allen Harris suggests it’s simply because employees are using time blocking techniques.

Things are back to normal since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. TSA check-ins are at 90.7% and restaurant reservations at 86.6% of their pre-pandemic levels. However, companies are still struggling to get their employees back into offices.

According to Kastle’s Return to Work Barometer, office occupancy is 41.2% with employees working from home, up from nearly 100% before the pandemic. Employers recognize that an office-focused environment promotes learning, peer contribution, alignment of vision and mission, communication and meaningful relationships.

A 2012 study from the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization found that an entire office will underperform if everyone is working from home. Additionally, a 2019 organizational and economic sociology study showed diminishing returns to telecommuting productivity as new distractions were discovered.

The phenomenon of working from home (WFH) that has become a necessity throughout the pandemic has become a benefit for white-collar employees whose physical presence is not required on site. Many large companies have had enough and are demanding that employees return to the office. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has issued an ultimatum to the company’s WFH employees, telling them they should return to the office or resign and “pretend to work somewhere else”.

Other large companies, such as Goldman Sachs and Netflix, have adopted a desktop-centric strategy. Google, Bank of NY, IBM, Yahoo, Aetna and Best Buy are dropping a hybrid system to eliminate most WFH options.

Many employees want to continue working remotely. However, some benefits perceived by workers may be short-lived. A 2020 Airtasker study found that 29% of WFH employees struggled to find a healthy work-life balance. However, only 23% of office workers said the same.

There are real travel benefits for workers. The average American’s commute time is 56 minutes per day, according to the US Census Bureau. Eliminating commuting allows more time for family, hobbies and errands. Unfortunately, personal errands can be left unattended for weeks by WFH employees.

Sheila, owner of an accounting firm in Great Barrington, helps employees run errands during the tax sprint by employing a company assistant. The helper delivers lunch, brings cars in for cleaning and maintenance, buys groceries, sits around the house installing appliances, etc. This helping hand saves employees several hours a week, compensating for some travel time.

Workers who are reluctant to return to the office may point to improved productivity. However, while their productivity may have increased, it wasn’t just a change of location that caused it. WFH is really just forced time blocking. The WFH eliminated people who “disturbed” their colleagues throughout the day. Employees can return to the office and maintain increased productivity if you teach them to respect boundaries. It’s old-fashioned time blocking.

Pittsfield-based bank executive Tim experimented with time blocking in 2018 and failed. Managers selected three-hour periods on various days of the week that were locked into assignments.

The assistants followed the time blocking rules and did not schedule any meetings during these times for the managers. However, managers were answering phone calls, responding to emails, neglecting to lock their doors, and forgetting to put up a do not disturb sign. Instead of working on projects, they remained responsive to requests from clients and colleagues.

Then, in 2020, Tim’s employees were instructed to work from home and productivity skyrocketed. Co-workers could no longer walk into the office and interrupt their colleagues. The urgency to resend non-priority emails has faded and enabled continued, uninterrupted efforts on critical projects.

Additionally, the WFH demanded that asynchronous communication replace the apparent need for everyone to be in the same room at the same time to make decisions. In other words, WFH blocks pretty much all day.

The advice given to WFH employees (make a to-do list, prioritize a task, work on it for 30-45 minutes non-stop, take 5-10 minute breaks, then continue) was a cut-and-paste from the era blocking playbook. It works better at home than in the office because WFH employees don’t face peer or management pressure to get distracted for those 30-45 minutes.

It’s hard to keep your team running at their most efficient pace because they’re great people. If they are loyal to the company, they also maintain relationships with their colleagues.

Your employees don’t want their peers to think they’re shirking their responsibilities, either. Therefore, when employees are given a task that may be important but not urgent, they stop what they are doing to react. As if connected like links in a chain, employee performance is then dragged down. Meaningful work can only be completed in a timely manner if it is prioritized and focused.

Don’t ignore your potential role in the situation. If you task an employee with an assignment at the last minute, you are responsible for some of the drag on production. Especially if that duty doesn’t have clear direction, clarity of priorities, and a vague follow-up protocol.

Suppose also that you expect your employees to be constantly available to you immediately via email or other channels. In this case, you are partly to blame for not providing them with the necessary boundaries to focus on their work.

Time blocking is easy to understand but seemingly difficult to execute. It’s a method of time management where, instead of just checking things off the to-do list when you get the chance, you dedicate periods of time to a specific task or project.

You know what it is, but you may not have been able to convince your team – or even yourself – to stick with it. Or you did it wrong – instead of planning the work, you planned the downtime. If you don’t schedule time for your important work — and stick to that schedule — you may not get there.

Time blocking software may be the tool you need to keep your office accountable. Some to consider are Plan, Sunsama, Reclaim, Tick Tick, Todoist, Motion, and TimeBloc. The software is easy to apply within the team, which is helpful as it creates group buy-in. The Team Agreement will make it harder for others to unintentionally steal your time.

I’m not suggesting eliminating telecommuting, but you should know that increased productivity is a bogus reason to offer it. You need to take the lessons of remote work and apply them to an office environment.


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