After moving to Chicago from Shanghai last year, I schmoozed through countless networking events hearing from companies that were ready to move the needle and ideate together with their jazzy open office plans and big office family. I heard all about the free lunch perks.
Call me old fashioned, but I’m of the opinion that no amount of artisan coffee, wine Wednesday, or nap pods in the workplace are going to make me want to spend more time in a physical office.
I moved to Chicago from China, where the expected office workweek was a minimum of 45 hours, and the time tracking app we used could track your GPS movements on your phone to know if traffic actually caused your delay or if you just got out the door a bit later than normal.
As a generalization, the edgy American office wants employees to find a home at work, while the Chinese office culture aims to monitor and monopolize time.
Two months into my new job at TLM, however, the Coronavirus pandemic pushed our team into remote work, and we’re keeping an open mind about the vision for TLM’s new post-pandemic office arrangements.
Table of Contents
A (Very) Brief History of the Modern Office
The book, Scientific Office Management by William Henry Leffingwell depicts work as many independent tasks that can be standardized, quantified, prioritized, and put together into a consistently revisited productivity model based on the resulting data.
The above sounds pretty legitimate until you realize it was published in 1917.
We are no longer living in a world of assembly lines and Ford Model T production.
Inventions Since the Book’s Publication:
- Sweatpants (1920)
- Flowcharts (1921)
- Video Call (1927)
- IBM Typewriter (1935)
- IBM Computer (1946)
- Hair spray (1948)
- Printers (1953)*
- Zoom (2011)
*This technology has not and might not ever truly evolve
I’ll stop joking now, but why are we basing our modern-day offices on a book that is older than the sweatpants (1920’s) I wear on my Zoom (2011) calls?
Open Office Plans ≠ Collaborative Work Spaces
The argument heard most frequently is that employees must return to the office because of team collaboration and communication.
Two researchers from Harvard Business School and Harvard University published results of a study aiming to test whether open office plans really increase interactions between coworkers.
Over the course of two weeks at a Fortune 500 company, the study collected a data set of over 96,000 interaction points (email and instant messaging) and compared the change to a control group. Employees also wore a sensor that detected posture and conversation.
The volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly by approximately 70% with an increase in electronic interaction.
How much are we truly collaborating?
Instead of promoting vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open office plans trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact over email and IM.
In short, employees put on headphones and attempt to hide.
Time Spent at Work ≠ Productivity
The idea of time tracking still makes me twitch. China’s DingTalk app, (the one that tracks your GPS movements on bathroom breaks) gave me a bit of PTSD. If employees were late, their salary was conveniently and automatically docked as well.
Companies should measure the value of office space with a focus on efficiency vs. cost.
The Concept of “Work Time” in America
Being asked to record my time made me panic until I was reassured multiple times that time tracking is for accurate client invoicing and would not result in any surprise automatic pay docking or invasive location tracking.
Technology tools today do support light supervision, but trust, not surveillance, results in productivity.
Arriving early to eat breakfast at your desk shouldn’t equate to productivity. There are countless issues with a time-only productivity model.
Time Tracking as a Productivity Indicator
We use a time tracking tool called Harvest, which allows us to invoice clients and monitor time as just one indicator of productivity.
Our Time Tracking and Productivity
It’s become apparent that we are far more efficient when working outside of an office.
While our small organizational data isn’t a peer-reviewed study from a Fortune 500, the basic numbers show that we structure more of our time on things that matter for our clients since working from home.
More Time Spent Working
What is most interesting here is that across the board in our organization, we are actually doing more work. However, on any given day, I might do the following:
- Wake up at 7:00 AM
- Take a Spanish class before work in lieu of a commute
- Cook an extravagant home-cooked-lunch at 12:00 PM
- Catch a fitness class at 5:15 PM instead of commuting
- Attend a career development webinar
- Continue working on a project because I feel like it
My colleagues might play with their kids, give their cat a bath, or run a lunch errand at 2 PM. Flexibility results in happier employees who actually work longer hours but manage their time better.
Hire good people and trust them to do the work.
Our Director of Operations addresses her own challenges with remote work in a recent article about time management. Courtesy of this new blurred line between work and home life (and a genuine love for her job), she was unknowingly working too much.
Happy Employees are More Productive
A study conducted by Swarthmore College found that when employee morale is high, employees are more likely to:
- Take educated risks
- Stay with the company longer
- Innovate more readily
- Provide better customer service
Employers can inspire this in their teams through mutual respect, compassion, and understanding.
Time-Independent Productivity Indicators
The Harvard Business School conducted another experiment on the US Patent Office. The study examined the productivity of 600 patent examiners as they moved toward a work-from-anywhere policy.
Based on the value of the average patent, this productivity gain could add $1.3 billion of value to the US economy yearly.
Other Ways to Measure Success at Work
- Employees want to develop and stay with the company long term
- Co-workers get along with each other
- Management and their team have an open-door policy
- Employees rate their bosses favorably on a 360 review
- Developing relationships with different people
Tasks completed in a given period of time aren’t the only metric for success.
Ultimately, Less Stress = Higher Productivity
We haven’t committed to the idea of a standard 9-5 x5 office environment post-pandemic, but we also aren’t completely giving up the idea of meeting to collaborate weekly, adopting a home/remote hybrid, or letting employees choose how they work best depending on the workflow.
Like many other businesses who are making it through the new challenges of this year, we’re ready to adapt in order to manage the happiness of our clients and staff.
Productivity, focus, and innovation come naturally when employees are happy, safe, and warm–whether or not that occurs at the office.