The future of work: 3/2, 2/3, or 0/4?

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
How productive are we when we work from home? It’s an increasingly common question. But Gudela Grote believes it’s the wrong question, because it says more about our conceptions of human nature than about effective ways of working.

2020 proved that being flexible about where we work (and the hours we work) can benefit employees and employers. Everyone was aware of the potential stumbling blocks - the blurring boundary between our professional and private lives, difficulties in maintaining informal contacts, barriers to mentoring and team cohesion. But during the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we did our best to sidestep these problems. However, now that the pandemic makes working from home no longer necessary, these problems have re-emerged. The difference today, however, is that we know how we can overcome them. We have to now use this knowledge to ensure a more humane way of working for everybody.

Hybrid working is here to stay

A recent paper published by Stanford economists concluded that the future lies in hybrid working.1 This is not surprising, as the idea is backed by decades of research in work and organisational psychology. What is interesting about the paper is the researchers’ reasoning behind their conclusion, however. As you would expect from economists, the argument centres on productivity. They studied the productivity of various modes of working and concluded that when people only work from home, their productivity drops by 10 to 20 percent; whereas it does not suffer and may even increase slightly if they engage in hybrid working.

A closer look at where the Stanford researchers found a drop in productivity leads one, for instance, to a study of data entry workers working from home. This immediately raises several questions, because besides being one of the most monotonous tasks a person can do at home, it is also completely unclear whether these workers’ domestic conditions were conducive to productive work.

All a matter of perspective?

In presenting the case for the benefits of hybrid working, the paper cites a study of call centre workers who took fewer breaks and less sick leave. But if one measures productivity in those terms, it may well be that one mainly captures increased pressure at work and presenteeism. These examples demonstrate how difficult it is to select a good metric for productivity, and that considering a metric without context will have little explanatory power. This lack of clarity in conceptions of productivity results in people being able to cherry-pick the arguments that support their own convictions and subjective appraisals.

Companies need to focus on these highly personal convictions to make meaningful use of the opportunities presented by new modes of working - and by new technologies as well. Most fundamentally, these convictions concern people’s motivation to work and, ideally, to do a good job. The Stanford paper cites another study in which employees claimed that working from home increased their productivity, while their supervisors argued the opposite. Both positions, in fact, have little to do with productivity and much more to do with how we conceive human nature. I am confident that if supervisors were solely to evaluate their own work from home, they would also claim they were more productive - provided that they actually like working from home.

Understanding different perspectives - more important than 2/3 or 3/2

Ongoing discussions about, for example, whether it’s more productive working two days from home and three days in the office, or vice versa (3/2), are not particularly fruitful. Instead, an earnest and open discussion about new modes of working should enable people to examine, discuss and revise their often implicit assumptions about human nature. Only then can a constructive debate begin to determine which modes of working are best suited for whom and for which jobs.

’It is difficult to select a good metric for productivity, and that considering a metric without context will have little explanatory power.’

We should be able to reveal and examine why we may find it difficult to return to in-person work or why we feel a loss of control when employees work primarily from home. These discussions would help us identify the shortcomings of our present working conditions and come up with better work designs. If I am "hiding" at home to avoid contact with my team or my supervisors, or because my work is so dull that I want to seize every possible opportunity to do something else, then the real issue is not 2/3 or 3/2, but rather the need to improve the nature and substance of our work and work relationships.

Is the four-day week the future?

The discussion surrounding how we will work in the future will not disappear and raises further questions that we will have to confront in the short or long term. In the face of new technologies and forms of organisation, how much will people still need to work? Various models of the four-day work week are already being tested - from 0/4 to 4/0 - and they’re shedding light on the fundamental question of the roles people and technology will play in the future. If robots were to take over our work at the factory or bank, perhaps we would not need robots to care for the elderly members of our society. And that could also make our work more meaningful and humane.
Prof. Gudela Grote