Remote workers can be more productive, but are they less likely to get promoted? Remote workers enjoy greater autonomy and work-life balance, but because of the perceived need to be seen they choose to come to the office. If managers remove the need for presence in recognition and promotion, how do we redefine the purpose of the office, and what are the organising principles? Fewer meetings are more valuable. A more connected workforce is more effective and more innovative when the office is not used as a place to just sit and work.
When we used to work side by side in an office every day, managers were comfortable being co-located with their employees and seeing what and how they were doing. Within any team, some members need to be strict about office time, while others can work longer hours. If some employees are ‘seen’ to be contributing more than others because they spend longer hours in the office our presence-based work culture must evolve. Recognition of effort must be rebalanced to account for hybrid workers whose visibility will now vary depending on how often they are in the office.
A distributed workforce that is part in the office and part remote on any given day will become the hybrid workstyle of the future. Companies will also need to factor that hybrid hours do not mean the hours people work when in the office will always coincide with the hours that others work when remote. So as people come back to the office, they are going to be there for less time than before, and may not be working in sync with employees working remotely. The move to hybrid will have a significant impact on team dynamics not only in terms of each other’s visibility but the visibility of the work they are doing.
Larger organisations already have to manage workforces that are distributed across different locations or across different countries, where a local lead is often key to effective execution. The broader impact of hybrid working will be felt at the local level where managers and teams will no longer share the same location every work day. Going forward, businesses will need to balance an entire workforce with varying levels of visibility and settle on new ways of working to manage ‘visibility bias.’
Out of sight, out of mind?
Many of the mental processes that govern our decision making are associated with recognising patterns of behaviour. Over time these patterns influence our thinking and we form subconscious habits. No matter how simple or complex, habits make us susceptible to blind spots or biases in our thinking and opinions.
Visibility bias comes from the way we interpret and interact in social settings. ‘Seeing’ only what people are doing in front of you and not accounting for what they are doing out of sight can create an inaccurate perception of their activity. Employees who need to allocate relatively more time to outside responsibilities may be equally, or even more productive but the perception of their efforts can be negatively skewed by a pattern of them leaving ‘on time’.
We have tended to form habits around equating people seen to work long hours with greater productivity. Many people with less time to spend in the office tend to be more focused when there. If the extra work they might do early morning or late at night when they can allocate additional productive hours isn’t ‘seen’, their diligence tends to be under-recognised by managers.
Work isn’t a place, it’s activity we do
Before the pandemic, we spent much of the time in an office reacting to events around us. We tended to discuss things in lots of casual meetings that lacked purpose, weren’t focused on outcomes and involved too many people. This inherent lack of structure and near habitual misuse of meetings made it doubly hard for managers and team members to collaborate efficiently during lockdown. The volume of short notice meetings got much worse and for many people, it became very challenging to protect productive time.
In a hybrid setting, if you are a manager, it will no longer be feasible to rely on people’s presence at their desks in the office to keep up with them, or for them to keep up with you. It will be harder to gauge how people are progressing, or not progressing, harder to assess what individuals are working on without a method for sharing and retrieving work on the same topic.
Instead of viewing work as a place (the workplace), focusing on work as different activities encourages us to separate them by type and think about where best to get them done. Being more location-aware in a hybrid setting also helps us to value our time properly. It’s not as if we have never thought this way before. Managers and employees do plan ahead periodically to work from home, with advance permission, to allocate thinking time to complete an important project or piece of ‘desk’ work. By focusing on the type of work we need to do and ‘matching’ that activity to the right place, we create a framework to optimise our productivity as well as our visibility.
Optimising in-person time
Employees need continued in-person access to their networks from a productivity standpoint but also to avoid losing the social capital - contacts and friendships - they have built up in their organisation. Letting the work determine when to be in the office, not the day of the week, will tilt activity carried out there towards tasks that rely on the creative proximity of colleagues to achieve the best results.
Other activity that requires thinking time does not need to be done in the office. But it will undoubtedly require easy access to topical information that the whole team is working on. Being able to retrieve that information and contribute to it in a united way will help hybrid teams collaborate more effectively when they are working in different locations.
Outputs are greater than observations
A new routine for a new regime will require effort on both sides. An effective method for teams to communicate asynchronously will help to overcome visibility bias but will also encourage managers and employees alike to actively focus on collective effort and promote more dynamic interactions amongst the team. Managers will need to balance the efforts of team members who continue to flag their achievements, with others who may have previously taken quieter comfort working alongside their more outspoken colleagues. These more understated employees will need to become more vocal about their progress. In a hybrid environment, our actions won’t necessarily speak for themselves.
Developing a more proactive focus on collective effort involves the whole team documenting information, progress and actions in the same way so these can be openly shared and retrieved at any time. Not dissimilar to how fully remote workers already function where communication is mostly done offline. This will enable hybrid teams to work productively in parallel no matter where they are; consistently sync schedules, reduce the need for live catch ups and and cross reference the progress of colleagues.
Take control of your exposure
Team members who are used to developing their image and documenting their progress in a very public way do not need to feel there is a cost to their reduced ‘exposure’ where their time in the office is less than before. They can lead by example in demonstrating the value of mapping out work, sharing knowledge, making sure people know about their achievements that other more modest team members can follow. Individuals who used to occupy more peripheral positions in the physical team network can level up their visibility in a hybrid setting. This will have a positive reinforcement effect on broader inclusion - the more community-like teams become the greater the incentive to build trust and interdependence and harmonise work processes. A hybrid work method that unites the team in principle disincentivises any one team member to try to take more credit than they are due, and more critically, enables managers to assess achievements more equitably.
As companies adapt to hybrid working, rethinking work as a range of activities simplifies planning when to be in the office and has the potential to play a meaningful role in helping individuals maintain their networks and reduce the volume of meetings. While calibrating varying levels of workforce visibility will require upskilling and reskilling, practical tools that unite hybrid workers will keep businesses agile and help to promote a more equitable culture across the organisation.