Think at London Business School
Remote working is dominating global headlines in 2020 as businesses around the world instruct employees to work from home in order to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
In a rather morbid twist of fate, it has taken a pandemic – an existential threat to life – to force the hand of the majority of organisations.
That is because the jury is still very much out when it comes to any policy or measure that removes people from the office.
In spite of the many and immense sociological leaps forward that have characterised the last century, the way we organise work around the planet remains largely unchanged since the 1950s. Many organisations cling to the 9-to-5 template – a paradigm that is predicated on a “breadwinner-homemaker” model that in the 21st century is no longer relevant.
As a result, our businesses remain obsessed with the idea of presenteeism. We still reward the frictionless employee – that ever-present colleague who prioritises work obligations above all others. At the same, we tend to penalise those who deviate from this norm, especially those who take time off work for any reason.
For working parents – mothers in particular – who might be struggling to balance work commitments with family, this is a real problem. And it’s a longstanding one.
Since the explosion of civil rights movements in the 1970s, organisations everywhere have come under pressure to alleviate the work-life conflict. In response to lobbyists, proactive litigation and battles in the court room, many have introduced policies aimed at women in particular. Parental leave or working part-time are hard-won rights that have become enshrined by law.
But there’s a problem.
Sociological research and evidence from the field tell us that when people take advantage of policies that target their demographic, they very often suffer enormous backlash from other groups: co-workers who see paid maternity leave or part-time contracts as being unfair to their interests.
There is a generalised assumption – totally unsupported by science – that women (and men) who take any substantive amount of time away from work are somehow not serious about their careers. They are less committed than their peers and they have deviated from the main track.
Women with families are particularly vulnerable not only to stigmatisation if they take time off, but to proactive punishment. Research shows that mentors will often see a decision to take maternity leave or to work part time as a betrayal of the time invested in professional development.
There is a common tendency too to assign working mothers jobs, roles and responsibilities that do little or nothing to advance their careers. And performance reviews and remuneration can suffer, because processes and the allocation of bonuses are invariable prone to subjectivity – and bias.
As a result, organisations that have taken the time to get policies into place to drive equity in rights routinely see these policies produce negative effects. Women’s attachment to the labour force is secured at the cost of their achievement. The effect is a two track system – one of which is the so-called mummy trap.
In my paper, ‘Discretionary remote working helps mothers without harming non-mothers: evidence from a field experiment’, I suggest that organisations looking to address this should seek to design organisational policies that do what we want them to do without incurring negative externalities. These kinds of policies should have universal appeal and be open to everyone to avoid backlash. They should also create benefits to all, but in particular to the demographic groups where need is greatest.
Discretionary remote working – where employees choose whether or not to work from home, thereby exercising greater agency and control over how they organise their work – is a template that works well for university professors like myself.
Going into this research, I hypothesised that as a policy it might be attractive to different demographic groups in different organisations, for different reasons. For parents, there are potential work-life benefits. For other groups there is the draw of exercising greater agency and control over workflow. That and avoiding an onerous commute to work.
To put this to test, I conducted a field experiment in the form of a randomised controlled trial with Abcam Plc, a midsized life sciences firm headquartered in Cambridge. Employees were randomly invited to sign up for the chance to work from home or from the office, and we implemented a cross-over design to ensure that all participants would experience one remote working week, one full week working from home, and a week based entirely in the office in order to compare impact on dimensions like performance and job satisfaction.
Specifically I was interested in capturing three insights.
Surveying participants and their supervisors following the experiment, a number of key insights immediately jumped out.
First, I found no difference in uptake across employees who took part. Everyone was equally happy to avail themselves of the option to work from home when they chose to. So this new policy didn’t seem to benefit one subset over another.
Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that given the option to choose how often to stay home, everyone across the board opted for the exact same amount of time: two days per week. That gives immediate lie to the assumption that, offered the freedom to telework, everyone will stay home all week. Instead, what emerged from the surveys and interviews, was a generalised interest in having some leeway – the autonomy to choose when to push a project forward with a colleague face to face, and when to save time by working from home without distraction. Again, this amounted to no more than two days across the board.
Looking at who benefited most from remote working, I found that it was in fact working mothers who reported the biggest improvement in work-life balance. For them, the pressure of juggling school runs with commuting was significantly attenuated by working from home twice a week. However, while this work-life benefit was largely limited to mothers – other groups did not share the same challenges, after all – I found no evidence of negative response elsewhere. In other words, here was a policy that benefitted women without incurring negative kick back from the broader workforce.
Not only that, but right across the board, employees from every demographic subgroup reported an uptick in performance as a result of being able to work remotely – something that was corroborated during interviews with their line managers. Everyone I surveyed across the business agreed that people work more efficiently when they have the discretion to work from home.
Offices can be highly distracting. Spontaneous collaboration can spark ideas but when the pressure is on to deliver, one person’s moment of inspiration is another’s moment of distraction.
During the experiment we relaxed the assumption that everyone has to be around all of the time. This meant that employees in the office had greater access to resources like meeting rooms. There was less congestion on the roads leading to the science park where the building was based and greater ease for staff coming into work to find parking spaces and keep to schedules punctually. In fact, coordination costs to Abcam Plc throughout the trial were uniformly minimal.
Today, most employees have the hardware and high-speed connectivity to facilitate virtual meetings and video conferencing from their homes. There is also no shortage of devices to get in touch with colleagues, from emails to WhatsApp to Alexa.
The only issue reported by participants and managers during the experiment was a lack of specific resources – two screens in the case of designers – and technical issues surrounding the setting up of a protected VPN. But these were one-time costs. For companies who are clear about trialling remote working in the longer term, technical provisions like these are relatively easy to pinpoint and can be pre-organised at minimal cost.
I am a great enthusiast for re-examining our assumptions about the way we organise work, and remote work in particular. A great deal of the way we juggle work and life is predicated on a model that simply no longer makes sense. The one breadwinner-one homemaker template speaks of bygone era, and a certain type of privilege that does not exist around the world any longer, yet the typical workplace is still predicated on this underlying assumption.
The coronavirus pandemic has put the spotlight on remote working in virtually every geography, industry and type of business around the world in 2020.
These are disquieting but also interesting times for people and organisations. And there will be plenty to learn when the dust eventually settles.