Snow Days and Work Life Haze

I woke up very early this morning, the day after an amazing Super Bowl Sunday, to see that another snowmaggedon had descended on Toronto.

In a city so large that a few centimeters of snow can create a cascading series of disasters, getting 30 of them all at once in a single dump is always a cause of excitement, occasionally bordering on outright hysteria…unless of course you just….. chillax.

After shovelling my driveway, and paying it forward by shovelling the walks of a couple of my neighbours as well, I did what I always do…got into commute mode and headed for work.

Usually I tube it in the winter, and bike the rest of the time, but today I was dropping my daughter off at Union Station.  I was early enough to get out of ahead of what will surely be a catastrophe on the highways and biways of the GTA; people stuck in hours long traffic snarls or, better yet, just taking a snow day and staying home.

The same story played itself out in New York and across the eastern seaboard last week and it sounds like round 2 is coming today.  The winter of 2015 has been a bit gentler then the winter of 2014 in the north east but right now it is full on.

Remote Work: Our Guilty Pleasure?

As I drove to work, I listened to the radio announcer after radio announcer across the air waves warning of poor visibility, and horrible road conditions, advising people “if they could” to consider “working from home today”.

For so many more of us now then used to be the case that is so much more a possibility then it ever used to be…and not just on snow days.  As the opening narration from the Six Million Dollar Man TV series intoned, “we have the technology“.

And yet so many people still treat “work from home” – the trend, the movement, or whatever it is – as something ranging from a guilty pleasure to anathema.

Take_The_Day_OffIn Remote: Office Not Required Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson explore the benefits of remote work.  They describe a “new era of freedom and luxury” they envisage as we move from a now dated view of remote work as synonymous with outsourcing, cost reduction and downsizing to a  new ideal “focused on increasing both quality of work and job satisfaction”.

Their book, released in 2013, was juxtaposed against a much more widely publicized contrarian view, Melissa Mayer’s widely commented on decision as Yahoo’s CEO to revoke its work from home policies. The Yahoo internal HR memo announcing the policy shift provided the rationale:

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Mayer’s decision – rightly or wrongly – is likely the most visible flashpoint in what has been and will continue to be a long running debate about the nature and purpose of work and how we choose to organize our work activities.

In some quarters she was praised for making tough decisions, being decisive and trying to inject new cultural mojo into what was perceived to be a bloated and unfocussed old guard Internet company.  In others, she was accused of being a throwback, clinging to dated ideas, doing a disservice to women in senior management roles, and cynically implementing massive layoffs by changing the rules of the game, without having to talk about or pay for a massive workplace reorganization.

Melissa hardly seems to warrant those kinds of labels….But this debate rages on and will continue to do so.

Maybe it is time to start changing the focus away from the less meaningful (where and how we work) to the more meaningful (how we can get more from work, individually and as teams, regardless of where and how we work).

The Horns Of A Dilemma

The logic leap traditionalists make is that being together is a necessary pre-requisite to being effective and productive “as a team” at work.

The idea that onsite requirements and traditional face-time results in increased productivity seems to many little more than management bias; with a variety of studies show that virtual teams, telecommuting and working from home resulting in higher productivity, lower turnover, and increased employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.

A 2011 study by nonprofit human resources association WorldatWork found that companies with stronger cultures of flexibility experienced lower turnover and increased employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.  More recently research has shown the productivity costs of workplace distractions, that affect virtually all employees.

Workplace_DistractionThe logic leap proponents of the remote work movement make, on the other hand, is that the flexibility inherent in remote working environments solves a significant percentage of the workplace stresses we all encounter, without simply creating an alternative, equal and opposite, group of them.

Fried notes in his book that the plus of fewer M&Ms (meetings and managers), can be contrasted with the challenges of working remotely in terms of personal phyiscal health, diet and exercise.  Recent research on the technology possibilities remote work takes advantage of, for example, suggests that the technologies that make remote work more affordable and effective are not unambiguously good either.

As reported in “Technology Plays Key Role In How Employees Work, Both in the Office and at Home” even among the tech community proponents of the remote work revolution the jury is still out on remote work, globally:

Perceptions of at-home workers are shifting as 52% of employees surveyed believe that those working from home are just as productive as or more productive than those in the office. However, this perception has not shifted everywhere, as 4 out of 10 employees in China, India, Turkey and UAE believe those working from home are less productive, and 29% of those in developed countries aren’t sure what to think. Of those who spend any time working from home, half believe they are more productive there than in the office. Of the remaining 50%, 36% believe they are equally as productive at home as in the office, and 14% say less productive.

Among the benefits of working at home, 30% of workers sleep more, 40% drive less and 46% feel less stress. But not everything about working from home is good. There are distractions from spouses, children, parents and pets, and 20% of employees indicate exercising less when working from home, with 38% indicating snacking more.

Other key findings:

  • 64% of employees globally conduct at least some business at home after business hours.
  • Employees in emerging countries are increasingly expected to be accessible at home, with 83% indicating they check work email after hours, compared with 42% in developed markets.
  • Executives blur the lines between “work” and “personal” more than other employees. They indicate using personal technology for work more frequently than other employees (64% vs. 37%), take work technology home for personal purposes (45% vs. 20%) and access personal websites/apps/software at work (67% vs. 49%).
  • More than half of employees globally currently use personal devices for work purposes or expect to do so in the future, while 43% are secretly using personal devices for work without the company knowing.

Stress & Anxiety:  Work Is Killing Me!

What’s really going on, it seems, in broader terms, is a process of re-thinking work, workplaces and work commitments.  In this vein, two recent studies are illuminating:

According to recent research, we’re all working far too hard, and need to think about rethinking the 8 hour workday and 40 hour workweek that have been a staple of our societies and culture for several generations.  As reported in “If Not 40 Hours Then What? Defining the Modern Work Week

Statistics bear out the impression that Americans are working more. A September Gallup survey of 1,200 workers reported that Americans were on the job 46.7 hours per week — nearly an extra full day each week, and the highest number since 2002. Just 40% said they worked only 40 hours per week, with 18% clocking in at more than 60 hours. Americans also work more than in any others in the industrialized world — longer hours and less vacation, and they take a later retirement.

Workplace_DistractionsAnd if that isn’t enough to get your attention, additional research suggests that for some, all this extra work is killing us, in eye-popping numbers (120,000 a year) and with fairly significant cost health care costs (almost $200 Billion).  The study, published by researchers from Harvard and Stanford, explores the causes and consequences as follows:

This means that anxiety about employment could be killing more Americans than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or the flu every year. The study, to be published in the journal Management Science, estimates that a lack of health insurance, a heavy workload, and conflicts between work and family are the most financially costly workplace stressors. Not having insurance, which can also lead to poor treatment, had the largest impact on mortality, contributing to 49,000 deaths per year, followed by unemployment and low control over workplace demands, which together contributed to 65,000 deaths. 

Working remote may solve some of these challenges, but it most certainly will create others.

So how can we use the flexibility and capabilities of technologies to reimagine work and reinvigorate workspaces, without losing the benefits of traditional workplace interactions, and without buying ourselves a whole new pack of anxieties we have to struggle with on our own?  This is a great question, worth considerable research, as it is likely to be one of the central social, economic and moral questions we will confront in the coming decades.

But, for today, the freeways seem to be less busy then usual…which means lots of people are taking a snow day….and that’s awesome.  Enjoy!

And if you really feel the urge to do something work related while hanging out at home, why not play around with Organimi and create an org chart for the virtual team you would build so that every day could be a snow day.

As always, thanks for reading.

The Organimi Team