By Michael Hicks
My 18-month work-from-home experience has come to a formal end.
No one, except maybe my wife, is more excited than me. The experience has caused me to muse upon the leadership and management differences the COVID pandemic yielded and what the effect on individual business and the workplace might be.
COVID had very different effects on the work performed by each group of workers. In nearly all cases, the lack of physical proximity caused by the pandemic required us to reschedule and reform instruction for executive education or academic classes. We struggled to become acclimated with four or five major conference software offerings, but within a few weeks it turned out to be a fairly straightforward technology fix.
In terms of purely administrative tasks, most of what we did could continue to be managed through digital systems we already had in place. But like most businesses, we still send and receive mail and sign documents, such as checks and performance evaluations.
With people working remotely, we had more hardware and software challenges to solve without the direct support of our technology office — a challenge, but ultimately, most of us became a bit better at troubleshooting software and hardware problems.
Accounting for people and hardware became a tougher task, but signing checks, approving software purchases, mailing letters or accounting for our equipment isn’t our mission. It supports our mission, but it’s not why we as an office exist. Indeed, a handful of other offices on campus may do those things to the detriment of productive work, but my office focuses on productivity.
For many operations, particularly many who could work at home, worker productivity isn’t easy to measure. Some supervisors focus on measuring inputs, such as hours worked. That is easy to do but doesn’t really tell you much about the quality or usefulness of the work. So the effect of COVID on direct supervision of those tasks had little effect on our work. I suspect most offices that shifted to remote work were similarly affected.
Another method of supervising work involves measuring outputs, such as the number of words written in a day or the number of calculations performed in a week. As with measuring inputs to production, this is easy but mostly not informative. In some settings, the output measure for productivity is appropriate. This is one way to measure productivity for businesses that do piece work or for workers who are still learning their craft.
COVID still permitted evaluating work like this. We continued to use it on some elementary tasks, such as assigning work that would help teach students. However, the productivity of complex, important work simply cannot be measured this way.
Most workplaces that involve abstract or nonroutine tasks must focus on the outcomes of their work. Outcomes may be curing cancer or convincing customers to buy more of a product. For my office, it is doing research that effectively informs public policy. All of these can be measured by inputs, such as the use of chemotherapy drugs or advertising campaigns. Additionally, all can be measured by outputs, such as the number of surgeries or from surveys of consumers.
COVID affected all of these activities insofar as they interfered with in-person activities. Still, in terms of affecting outcomes, such as cancer survival, client profitability or good policy, the workplace changes caused by the pandemic had little direct influence. There was an indirect effect.
More abstract tasks benefit from direct human interaction and collaboration. The pandemic clearly reduced the quality of human interaction. Some of the impacts are obvious, such as the teaching experience.
I spent 40 years assessing comprehension in my classroom by judging the body language and facial expressions of my students. Those are very hard to discern on Zoom, requiring me to add more pauses for student feedback and comments.
The development and quality of abstract tasks are those most affected by remote work. Like most workplaces, there is a fairly detailed technical aspect to our work. Discussing the technical aspects of our jobs, such as explaining the mathematical models we use and working through pitfalls of different approaches, was much weakened by COVID.
This type of human interaction concerning the technical details of a project or workflow is part of every workplace, not just a university research center. This accumulated judgement of co-workers is vital for management success, no matter how humble or routine the operation might be. COVID weakened those interactions across a wide range of businesses.
Still, after almost a year and a half of COVID, one in six workers are still operating remotely, and maybe one in three have some type of remote work capacity in their homes. This large shift to remote work will remain with us well past the forecastable future.
My first big hunch is that we will rush back into meetings, collaboration sessions, in-person training and other human interactions. I’m eager to speak in person to students and colleagues I’ve seen only occasionally over the past year and a half. This adjustment will have some productivity consequences that are similar to our rush to our home offices in March 2020.
The world of remote work also caused us to drop a lot of tasks we were doing beforehand. It also caused us to focus more intently on human interaction remotely. I suspect most offices will learn to mix personal and online work more effectively in the years to come. So COVID might become a gateway for more flexible workplaces that blend combinations of in-person and remote work. These mostly seem like welcomed changes.
The work changes to the pandemic will also continue to favor certain types of workers. Not all jobs can be performed remotely or flexibly. There is an education divide in this work, but it is not as stark as often thought.
Physicians need to work mostly in person, whereas there appears growing demand for remote work in customer service and data entry that can absorb workers of nearly all skill levels.
As we continue to deal with the pandemic, the future of remote work and its effect on offices and businesses leaves more questions than answers. When it is all said and done, I’m just happy to be leaving the windowless nursery I’m using for a home office.