The modern workplace may have been influenced by technology however the primary motivation for experimenting with different working conditions has been to focus on reducing employee costs more than improve productivity.
As with any business, cost reduction is important however, more importantly does conditions like working from home, flexible working arrangements and four-day weeks improve or decrease productivity?
A difficult question to answer because firstly, there are few measures for workforce productivity particularly for white collar workforce; and secondly there is little imperial evidence to understand if our workforce “experiments” are working.
Another consideration is that new workplace initiatives are not classified as experiments which by the very nature of the term would require evaluation. Instead, often an idea quickly becomes a fact, normalised, promoted by tag lines and gurus without critical evaluation.
Open office plan
Open office plan was an initiative that became very popular in the early part of this century.
It was driven by reducing the cost of floor space with little consideration on what impact this new arrangement would have on productivity. It was marketed as enhancing collaboration, generation of new ideas, aiding communication and enhancing teamwork, however recent research has debunked many of these assumptions.
Professor Ethan Bernstein from Harvard Business School has conducted research that shows there is a 70% reduction in face to face interactions when private offices moved to open plan and collaboration is reduced not enhanced. Just because you are “co-present” doesn’t mean you are “collaborating”.
As a professor of organisational behaviour, he understands that humans have a natural desire for privacy and when working in an open plan office they create barriers that prevent or decrease opportunities for collaboration.
Although it is not his original term, he calls it creating a “fourth wall,” where you build an invisible wall in your minds to create your own space. We do this by using headphones, preventing eye contact, positioning our bodies to block other people. We email other people in the open plan office rather than disturbing them. As a consequence, many offices are becoming quieter rather than the buzz of people collaborating. People are reverting to soundproof cubicles to get their work done.
His research however does describe what type of collaboration increases productivity. He describes it as turning collaboration on and off. In summary you work individually to solve a problem, then you come together to discuss. This process is repeated. The impact is a reduction in time, more effective and limits group think. Professor Bernstein postulates that for many, more traditional working spaces may be more effective than the new.
Flexible working hours and working from home.
As with open plan offices, flexible working hours and working from home were primarily driven by cost reduction. Technology enabled people to work anywhere anytime.
Like the open floor plan this idea was not considered an experiment that needed evaluation. Instead it quickly became best practice, normalised, promoted by tag lines and gurus without critical evaluation.
I am not aware of any empirical evidence that outlines how more productive people are becoming under these new work arrangements. What I do know is that taking away boundaries have enabled people to juggle work, domestic duties, family responsibilities and everything in between.
I don’t have any evidence to suggest that this new approach to work increases productivity and reduces costs. What I do know is that this new modern lifestyle is a factor in contributing to an epidemic of anxiety in Australia. This is part of the reason that there is a new initiative called the four-day week
Enter the four-day week.
Like all that has gone before, an idea has blossomed. It is not considered an experiment that needs critical evaluation. There is a new book, articles, world tours by guru’s and workshops to attend.
The proposal is if employees can be as productive in four days as they can be in five, they will be paid for five days but only work four. Employees are asked to decide how they and their team can enable this to happen.
Not surprisingly with such an incentive people put back the boundaries. When they were at work, they worked ensuring they were free from other distractions and they were as productive in four days as they were in five.
One company found that they had a 35 percent reduction in the use of the top internet sites. People did not go out as much for coffees, they reduced meeting times, some even left their mobile phones in a locker so they would not be disturbed.
I don’t know what the long-term impact of this approach will be. Will it help create a new classification of workers that some industries like nurses, policemen, and teachers will be unable to enter? Once established that people can work productively in four days will they only be paid for four. The research highlights people are the most productive when they work in an environment that enables them to have meaning Will this approach encourage this? I don’t know I can only guess but guessing is not good enough.
I believe the key questions when deciding on structural changes within the workplace are: Will this encourage ongoing productivity and how will you know if it does?
Instead of adopting of simply adopting new workplace structures and iniatives, we consider them as experiments, evaluate their effectiveness and adapt based on the outcomes.
And of course, remember not everything that shines is new.