As the American workplace reopens, not all employees are onboard with returning to the “old normal.”

A new survey finds that nearly half of employees who are currently working from home want to keep it that way.

The forced shutdown of the American workplace began in mid-March. Only now, ten weeks later, are things beginning to open back up in a significant way.

But those ten weeks have revealed some interesting attitudinal changes on the part of many employees. Simply put, quite a few of them have concluded that they like working from home, and don’t much care to return to the “traditional” work routines.

It’s an interesting development that illustrates yet another manifestation of “the law of unintended consequences.” For decades, the opportunities to work from home seemed to be a realistic proposition for only a distinct minority of certain white-collar workers and top-level managers.

Reflecting this dynamic, prior to the Coronavirus outbreak just ~7% of the U.S. private sector workforce had access to a flexible workplace benefit, as reported in the 2019 National compensation Survey released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Suddenly, working from home went from being a rarefied benefit to something quite routine in many work sectors.

In late April, The Grossman Group, a Chicago-based leadership and communications consulting firm, conducted an online survey of nearly 850 U.S. employees who are currently working from their homes.  A cross-section of age, gender, geography, ethnicity and education levels were surveyed to ensure a reliable representation of the U.S. workforce.

The topline finding from the Grossman research is that nearly half of all workers surveyed (48%) reported that they would like to continue working from home after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

The reasons for preferring work-from-home arrangements are varied. Certainly, the prospect of reduced commuting time is a major attraction, along with other work/life balance factors … and while some employees have found that setting up an office in their home isn’t a simple proposition, it’s also clear that many employees were able to adjust quickly during the early days of the workplace lockdown.

David Grossman, CEO of The Grossman Group, sees in the survey findings a clear message to employers:  Worker preferences have evolved rapidly, necessitating a re-imagining of traditional ways of working. Grossman says:

“A great deal has changed in employees’ lives in a short time, and if we want them to be engaged and productive, we’re going to have to be willing to meet them where they are as much as possible … that’s a ‘win-win’ for companies and their people.”

He adds:

“Many employees have gotten a taste of working from home for the first time – and they like it.”

Interestingly, the Grossman Group survey found practically no generational differences in the attractiveness of a work-from-home option; whether you’re a Baby Boomer, a Gen X or Gen Z worker, the attitudes are nearly the same.

Of course, not every type of work is conducive to working remotely. Many jobs simply cannot be done without the benefit of a “destination workplace” where mission-critical machinery, equipment, laboratory and other facilities are accessed daily. But the COVID-19 lockdown experience has shown that employees can be productive no matter where they are, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the workplace likely won’t cut it in the future.

This might be a little difficult for some people to hear, but employers will have to set aside concerns about potential slackening employee motivation and productivity in a remote working environment, lest they lose their talent to other, more flexible employers who are figuring out ways to manage a remote workforce effectively over the long-term.

As David Grossman contends, “More flexibility adds value to the employee experience, builds engagement, and brings results.”

Additional findings from the Grossman Group research can be accessed here.

What are your thoughts on the topic, based on your own experiences and those of your co-workers over the past 10 weeks? Please share your opinions with other readers here.

 

Hot-desking on the hot-seat.

“Few aspects of office life are more dispiriting than hot-desking — the penny-pinching ploy that strips people of their own desk and casts them out to the noisy, chaotic wasteland of shared work spots.” 

— Pilita Clark, Correspondent, Financial Times

I’ve blogged before about so-called “open office” layouts and how they’re disdained by many employees. But even with all of the unpopularity of open office layouts, there’s another office concept that appears to be even more despised: “hot-desking.”

Hot-desking is a concept that came into being more than a decade ago, and it takes the idea of “open offices” a step beyond. It’s a design in which workers are not assigned to a regular desk or cubicle, but instead find whatever desk is available to them on any given day.

If you read the literature from five or ten years ago, you’ll see all manner of compelling reasons being proffered as to why hot-desking is a worthwhile concept. One rationale is that hot-desking fosters “agile working” and more collaboration among employees — at the same time making communications between workers more effective and thereby enhancing the exchange of information.

Reading those advocacy pieces, there are numerous references to employees finding hot-desking to be “liberating,” “motivating,” “energizing,” and so forth.

Advocates of hot-desking appear to equate it the practice of working “wherever” — just to long as the work gets done. “Wherever” can mean at home, in coffee shops, or anywhere around the office.

If all this seems a little too neat and tidy, the your suspicions are warranted. Because some observers are onto the real reasons companies adopt hot-desking work environments — which is to save on office space and its associated costs.

Is it any wonder that hot-desking is promoted by top executives, finance and facilities management personnel more than any others?

Alison Hirst, PhD, a research specialist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, who has experienced hot-desking personally, clues us in on what’s actually happening. She spent three years carefully studying one organization that moved to a hot-desk environment:

“Like many companies, it had switched to hot-desking to reduce property costs and enable precious office space to be used flexibly. In the language of facilities management, an office building can be ‘crunched’ by increasing the staff-to-desks ratio, and it can be ‘restacked’ as teams and departments are moved around like boxes.

But in this bid for cost-cutting, a number of employees are made to feel underappreciated at best and unwanted at worst. There is often a subtle division between those who can ‘settle’ and reliably occupy the same desk every day, and those who cannot.”

In Hirst’s observations, “settlers” are able to arrive at the office early choose their preferred desk. By repeating their choice over time, it effectively establishes this desk as “their” space — whether it be because of its preferred location near to windows, or near to their closest colleagues.

Those who cannot arrive sufficiently early — such as part-time employees or those with childcare responsibilities — are left to hunting around for a suitable workspace, often far removed from the colleagues with whom they need to work most closely.

Last year, business author and journalist Simon Constable penned an opinion piece for Forbes with the provocative title “How Hot-Desking Will Kill Your Company.” In it, Constable contends that for most companies, the drawbacks of hot-desking vastly outweigh any benefits. Constable, who also has personal experience working in a hot-desking environment, makes these salient points:

Hot-desking signals that employees don’t matter — companies like to say that their employees are their single best asset. But when an employee isn’t even offered a permanent desk, it sends a completely opposite message.

Super-quick meetings won’t happen — Brief impromptu meetings are a vital part of office efficiency. In concentrated work environments with relevant teams of employees, such micro-events are important but don’t interrupt much of the workflow because of the proximity of the workers involved. If having short 3- or 5-minute meetings will require summoning people from all over the building, that super-quick meeting will soon become a frustrating 15 or 20 minutes, eating away at productivity. Which means they’ll rarely happen at all.

Inefficiencies add up quickly — The combined total costs of small-but-incremental negative effects adds up. The larger the office, the worse the impact is likely to be.

Rank hypocrisy — Employees notice that many of the biggest advocates for hot-desking are the people who have dedicated desks for themselves — and often their own individual offices with doors. “Hot-desking for thee but not for me.”

Fortunately, I work in a small office where everyone is not only locationally proximate, we even have walls and a door for when privacy is needed for meetings or concentrated creative/copywriting time without distractions. Closed-door activities may only happen once or twice per week, but they increase work efficiencies. I consider our situation fortunate not to be forced into open-office or hot-desking scenarios.

What are your thoughts on the hot-desking concept? If you have personal experiences, please share them with other readers here.

The “bystander effect” and how it affects our workplaces.

Here’s an interesting view into human nature: Experience tells us that far more people will pass a disabled motorist on a busy highway without bothering to stop, compared to stopping for a person stranded on a lonely country road.

This phenomenon creeps into the business world, too — and particularly in a situation which some of us have probably experienced at least a few times during our careers: There’s someone at work who is clearly deficient in their job. Worse yet, the deficiencies aren’t due to incompetence, but to undesirable character traits like sloth, a sour attitude, deficient interpersonal skills — or even questionable ethics.

Moreover, the behavior of the individual falls in the “everyone knows” category.

The question is, what happens about it? Too often, the answer is “nothing.”

Social scientists have a name for this: the “bystander effect.”   It means that “what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

In mid-2019, several researchers at the University of Maryland studied the topic by fielding several pieces of research. In a first one, nearly 140 employees and their managers working at a Fortune 500 electronics company were surveyed.  That survey found that employees were less apt to speak up about problems they perceived to be “open secrets.”

Two other components of the field research – one a survey of 160+ undergraduate students and the other a study involving behavioral experimentation with nearly 450 working adults – found essentially the same dynamics at work.

According to the University of Maryland research study leaders, Subra Tangirala and Insiya Hussain:

“In all three studies our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak, and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference.”

The inevitable conclusion? Tangirala and Hussain reported:

“Our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility — or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up.

They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. As issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of top management decreases.”

Sadly, the University of Maryland research shows that the “bystander effect” is the perfect recipe for companies to keep loping along without making HR changes — and not realizing their full potential as a result.

There’s another downside as well:  If left unaddressed, festering issues involving “problem” employees can engender feelings of frustration on the part of the other employees — along with the sense that an underlying degree of fairness has been violated because of the efforts the other workers are making to be productive employees. Unfortunately even then, no one wants to be the person to blow the whistle.

More detailed findings from the University of Maryland research can be accessed here.

What about your experiences? Have you ever encountered a similar dynamic in your place of work? Please share your insights with other readers.

The closed world of open office environments.

If you ask company managers and CFOs if they prefer “open office” concepts over private offices, you may well get a different answer than if you ask the people who actually work in open office environments.

There are two attractive aspects about open office plans that surely warm the hearts of many business managers. One is the notion that an open office environment encourages more interaction and spontaneous collaboration among employees.

The other is that open office concepts don’t cost as much to build and maintain as do private offices.

So … let’s break this down a bit.

Speaking personally, I’ve visited numerous company headquarters and branch locations where open office plans are prevalent … but what I see and hear isn’t interaction. Instead, it’s more likely to be mounds of white noise with employees sitting at their desks focusing intently on their computer screens.

Any interaction that may be happening is closer to the hushed sounds of a reference library — or even the confessional zone in the back of a Roman Catholic or Anglican church — than it is to any kind of bright, casual conversation with ideation happening all over the place.

This can’t be what managers had in mind – even if they’re shaving 25% or more off of their facilities management budget.

Now we have some new evidence to support the anecdotal evidence. Researchers at the Harvard Business School studied two Fortune 500 companies that made the transition to an open office plan from one where workers had more privacy.  The firms agreed to allow themselves to be the subjects of before/after evaluation.

The research wasn’t done via a survey, which would likely be susceptible to respondent bias (a fear of being honest and saying something that goes against the common managerial POV). Instead, the actual worker behaviors were charted using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones that were worn by the employees for several weeks before and after the office redesigns.

The badges worn by the participants included an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth® sensor and an accelerometer that, when combined with a microphone, could discern when two people had a face-to-face interaction (but without recording the actual words spoken).

The Harvard research also studied before/after data pertaining to the volume of e-mail and instant messenger use by the employees.

Even though other variables remaining the same in the before/after evaluation (the same employees … before/after study periods occurring during the same business cycle), the changes in behavior were startling:

  • Employees spent ~73% less time in face-to-face interactions
  • E-mail use rose by ~67%
  • Instant messenger use grew by ~75%

The research also looked at shifts in interactions between specific pairs of work colleagues, where it found a similar dropoff in face-to-face communications along with increased electronic correspondence (although not to the same degree as the overall research results showed).

Furthermore, the research determined that workers tended to interact with different groups of people online than they did in person, which opens up even more potential concerns about the reduction in collaboration that would be happening as a result of moving to the open office concept.

Speaking in a post-study interview, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein’s conclusion was that there’s “a natural human desire for privacy — and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it.”

In the case of preferred office configurations, people simply don’t like fishbowls. Deskside chats don’t happen, and other face-to-face interaction is severely limited as well.

In other words, open office plans don’t result in increased personal interaction, but they do create a more digital environment.  That seems like the polar opposite of what management wants.

Of course, to reduce a company’s facilities budget, an open office environment remains the preferred thing to do.  So maybe companies need to drop all of the pretense about “facilitating positive collaboration and spontaneous brainstorming.” Just tell employees what’s really behind shifting to an open office concept:  spending fewer dollars.

At least employees might appreciate the honesty rather than the obfuscation …

A detailed article summarizing the research, co-authored by Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, can be accessed here.

“Don’t Tread On Me”: Employees have strong feelings about employers gaining access to their social media profiles.

Social media privacyRecent news reports that some companies are asking their current employees or prospective new hires to grant them access to their private social media profiles haven’t set well with many people.

It seems that while people don’t mind publishing their personal information for friends and families to see, they’re not keen at all on employers having access as well.

This is borne out in the latest American Pulse survey from BIGinsight, a consumer information portal. In that survey, which queried nearly 3,600 American adults over the age of 18, respondents were asked how they would react to a request by an employer to hand over personal social media passwords, thereby gaining access to their profiles.

Approximately one in five of the survey respondents reported that they are not engaged in social media.  But among the remainder, most would resist the employer’s request … even to the extent of quitting their job:

  • Would quit a job or withdraw an employment application: ~52%
  • Would delete social media pages to prevent them from being seen: ~21%
  • Would go ahead and provide social media passwords to the employer: ~14%
  • Would edit social media profiles first … then provide passwords: ~13%

Based on the opinions of the respondents, it’s not at all surprising that the survey also found that ~85% think that when employers asking for access to social media profiles, it’s an invasion of privacy.  And only about 11% of respondents would be “comfortable” sharing their social media profiles with a potential employer.

There does seem to be a bit of altruism at work, because the preponderance of survey respondents (~72%) claim that they have “nothing to hide” on their social sites.

No doubt, Americans’ views about online privacy are borne out of the “live free or die … don’t tread on me” tradition of individualism in this country.  We love our ability to express ourselves … but spare us the KGB/Stasi routine!

What’s the Latest with Employee Satisfaction?

Coming off the worst recession in memory, just how happy are Americans in their jobs today?

An online survey of ~450 American adults conducted in late February by enterprise feedback management and research firm MarketTools has found that only ~34% consider themselves “very satisfied” in their current job positions:

 Very satisfied: ~34%
 Somewhat satisfied: ~40%
 Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied: ~10%
 Somewhat dissatisfied: ~10%
 Very dissatisfied: ~5%

Those results would seem to portend that a significant number of people will be looking to change jobs in the near-term future.

And in fact, nearly 50% of these respondents reported that they’ve “considered” leaving their current positions – and more than 20% have actually applied for another job within the past six months.

What’s causing dissatisfaction among employees? They’re the usual things, beginning with salary, although many respondents cited multiple contributing factors to employee dissatisfaction:

 Salary level: ~47% of respondents
 Level of workload: ~24%
 Lack of opportunity for advancement / career development: ~21%
 Relationship with manager / supervisor: ~21%
 Medical benefits issues: ~20%
 Work environment: ~14%
 Length of commute / distance from home: ~14%

It shouldn’t be too surprising to witness an increase in job-hopping behavior following economic downturns. For those lucky enough to have held onto their positions during the recession, the working environment has likely been more stressful, as employers required more productivity from fewer workers.

It’s also likely that benefits packages were reduced to some degree. So it’s only natural for people to nurse some residual negative feelings about the situation and to possibly consider jumping ship to another employer.

But would that be the best move?

Often, moving to a new employer doesn’t result in the improvements the employee expected to find. And smarter companies will use the improving economic climate (such as it is) to reward those employees who hung in there when times were tough. After all, these are their better workers!

Salary and benefit increases are always going to be appreciated … but so is the opportunity for continued growth and career development.

It’ll be quite interesting to see what the job-hopping statistics show a few months from now.

How “social” should your office environment be?

In the early years of the Internet, companies worried about the loss of productivity if employees were tempted to surf online in amongst their work duties. There was also the issue of the “appropriateness” of the web content being viewed. In response, various web tracking capabilities were introduced that enable companies to monitor online activities on networked computers.

On the other hand, as the Internet became all-pervasive in daily life, many companies also adopted a policy of allowing a modest amount of web surfing during work breaks to allow employees to conduct personal business such as shopping and bill-paying.

Now, with the rise of social media, the whole issue has been brought to the fore once again. The proliferation of Facebook accounts in particular has resulted in a new spike of personal online activities at work. A recent study by Nucleus Research bears it out. Based on study findings, Nucleus deduces that companies allowing employee access to Facebook lose an average of 1.5% in total employee productivity. And in an era of cutthroat competition globally, 1.5% of productivity is no slouch amount.

To reach this conclusion, Nucleus Research found that slightly more than three-fourths of the employees surveyed have a Facebook account. Of those who do, nearly two-thirds admitted to accessing their account during working hours.

The average amount of time spent per day on Facebook on office time is about 15 minutes – although the study uncovered a few employees who spent upwards of two hours daily during work hours. (Shame on those employees … but shame on their employers, too, for being so utterly clueless about those employees’ behavior!)

Of course, some people’s activities on Facebook have a business purpose, don’t they? Well … it is true that some employees manage “fan” pages for their company as an adjunct of their personal Facebook account. But that shouldn’t represent more than a small portion of any firm’s workers – perhaps those in the marketing, sales, HR or shareholder relations departments.

And the Nucleus Research study findings reflect this as well, because nearly 90% of the respondents who access Facebook at work could not articulate a business justification for doing so.

Perhaps the study’s most surprising finding was the ~5% of respondents who never access Facebook anywhere but at work. What this may mean is that they built their entire Facebook profile on work-time as well. Chalk up some more wasted hours!

The Nucleus Research findings demonstrate that as time progresses and various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter become even more pervasive communications tools for people at all levels in the organization, the old guidelines for balancing work and personal life must continue to evolve.

The kneejerk reaction is to simply block access to Facebook on all office computers. But there will always be some employees who have a legitimate business reason to be on Facebook. And then there are the the ever-growing ranks of telecommuters working offsite, who surely have access to alternate laptops or PDAs even if their company-issued equipment blocks access.

As is usually the case with situations like this, the easiest fix is sometimes not the best one. And at the end of the day, “big brotherism” could reduce employee morale even further — hardly the result one would hope for in the current difficult business climate where “improving company morale” is far more just an abstract concept in an HR textbook.