What has remote work taught us?

On Good Authority Episode 40 – Photo of Natalie Longmire

EPISODE 41 - From “productivity paranoia” among employees to changing how managers effectively lead teams, organizational behavior expert Natalie Longmire talks about what the nation has learned almost three years into the great remote work experiment ushered in by the pandemic.

Transcript ▾

Speakers
Keith Brannon, director of public relations, Tulane Communications and Marketing
Natalie Longmire, assistant professor of management, Tulane A. B. Freeman School of Business

 

Brannon
Welcome to On Good Authority, the podcast from Tulane University, where we bring you leading experts to talk about issues of the day and ideas that shape the world. I'm your host, Keith Brannon. Since the pandemic, there has been a seismic shift in how people work. When COVID-19 stopped the world, companies shut down their offices for months. Almost overnight, teams were fully remote. And for many, the shift became permanent. Now, managers and employees are trying to recalibrate. Some are bringing all their employees back to the office, while others are embracing hybrid work schedules. A recent survey by McKinsey found that 35% of jobholders can work from home full time, and another 23% can do so part of the time. Almost 60% have the option to work at home all or part of the week. We're joined by an expert in organizational behavior from Tulane’s A. B. Freeman School of Business. Natalie Longmire is an assistant professor of management. She's here today to talk about remote work, and what companies have learned from the “Great Reset” caused by the pandemic. Natalie, thank you for joining us here today.

Longmire
Thanks so much. I'm excited to be here.

Brannon
As someone who studies organizational behavior, these past few years must have been a fascinating experiment.

Longmire
It's really shattered this myth, in some ways, that in order to be successful, we have to be putting in long hours at the office. You know, we've really seen we can be productive at home, and we can still be creative at home. We can, we can collaborate at home. We don't have to have these spontaneous water cooler conversations in order to have the breakthrough. You know, that's kind of this myth, like creativity comes from spontaneous, you know, encounters in the workplace. We can do this, we can do most of the work that we need to do from home for some, for some employees, specifically knowledge workers.

Brannon
Do you think remote work is here to stay?

Longmire
Absolutely, to some extent. So it's not a surprise to anyone, remote work existed before the pandemic. And that's because of globalization. We, we did have this technology before. So we could search for talent that wasn't necessarily co-located where we needed them to be. But I think it's absolutely, it's this perk and this advantage that employees have gotten to enjoy during the pandemic. There weren't major drawbacks to it in terms of productivity. So at this point, it just, it just doesn't feel fair, it doesn't feel justified to take it away. And, and that's something that organizations, I think, some are learning the hard way.

Brannon
The modern workplace was invented for the way work was done 100 years ago. You know, people had to go to a place, they didn't have this connectivity that we have now. So you know, workplaces evolve, and they evolve by the expectation of the leadership. Once everything changed overnight, there was a questioning of norms, you know, why do we go into the office every day? What is the point of our work, you know, to be productive? And can if you can be productive, decoupled from, you know, physical location, what does that mean for a company? Does it exist at its corporate headquarters? Does it exist in a physical location? Or do we need to rethink all of that? And I think that different companies have come to different conclusions. Some are wanting to get their employees back as quickly as possible, while others are saying, you know what, we can exist virtually. Are there any kind of, quote, “universal lessons” companies have learned throughout all this? And what have companies seen as a gain when they embrace remote work?

Longmire
You know, I hesitate to apply anything universal, right? Because it's always going to depend on the nature of the work and the goals and the size of the company. But what we do know is that it's really hard to attract and keep talent right now. I've seen a couple of different surveys that estimate that between 40% and 60% of employees are thinking about changing jobs in the near future. So, the costs that companies are looking at, in terms of dealing with turnover and having to fill those positions, are huge. So if if people need hybrid work or need a remote arrangement in order to feel satisfied or to be interested in that job, then that's something that companies are really going to have to consider.

Brannon
And there's the great remote work debate. There are several different factions, but some see a generational divide here. With Gen Z being more at home, literally, in the virtual workplaces, versus maybe Gen X or baby boomer managers, who may be more traditionalist. Are you seeing any truth to this generational divide?

Longmire
There's been a little bit of research on this so far, and they have not found generational differences in attitudes towards hybrid work. But change is hard. And we know that as we age, on average, we become less open to change. And I think we can all think of, I mean, my parents are not into the hybrid work thing. They think there's no way you can be as productive at home as you are in the office. And I think maybe this doesn't get said explicitly, but there's a little bit of like, you know, “This is what I had to do. And this is what I had to put in in order to be successful. So I think it, it should be the same for you.” So, I think it's still a little bit of to be determined on that.

Brannon
So, a study from Microsoft found a big disconnect between how productive workers think they are versus what their bosses think. Eighty-seven percent of workers said they're productive remotely. But only 12% of leaders said they were fully confident in that productivity. Microsoft called it productivity paranoia. That's a real problem, not just for managers, but for employees. What's your take on that?

Longmire
So, a study from Microsoft found a big disconnect between how productive workers think they are versus what their bosses think. Eighty-seven percent of workers said they're productive remotely. But only 12% of leaders said they were fully confident in that productivity. Microsoft called it productivity paranoia. That's a real problem, not just for managers, but for employees. What's your take on that?

Brannon
What's your advice for managers who lead these remote teams? Microsoft says to focus more on outcomes.

Longmire
Yeah, I think that is a great idea. You know, for example, my husband is in sales. So it does not make any sense for his manager to police his productivity on a daily basis. What makes sense is to look at the number of deals that he's closing on a quarterly or yearly basis. But not all jobs are that easy to, to look at. So, you know, for me, I get I get judged on my publications. So that's, that's pretty easy. But in terms of things like teaching quality, you know, how do we, how do we measure that? So what I'm saying is like, not all, performance is super easy to measure. But as long as you're focusing on building that trust. And also, a good idea is to engage your entire team in conversations, actual conversations about what are our expectations for how we are staying engaged while we're working from home? What are the norms that we hope to have in terms of responsivity to messages, in terms of, you know, Zoom? Are we okay with having cameras off? So having conversations about these things can go a long way. Some managers just assume that that employees know what they expect from them. But, you know, the research shows that managers tend to under-communicate. So, communicate, communicate, communicate, do it all the time.

Brannon
Some are using surveillance technology now to look over their employees’ shoulders. Is this a good idea?

Longmire
In short, absolutely not. You know, especially when things like keystrokes and mouse activity are just not a good proxy for the actual quality of work that an employee is doing. It really undermines autonomy. It undermines trust. It undermines employees’ sense of fairness, especially when they feel like they are being productive, they are doing what they're being asked to do. But they're being judged by a different metric. You know, on the whole, I think, companies are going to start seeing that they're going to lose employees for doing this.

Brannon
And productivity paranoia works both ways. I remember, you know, there's, there's kind of creep in terms of work hour. When we were fully remote, I would open my laptop in the morning, making coffee, check email, you know. So that means logging in 6:30, kind of doing a little work there. And then it seemed like the end of the day got fuzzier and fuzzier. You know, I'll check email during these other activities, or I will do this task. And I found myself feeling like I had to be more productive to justify, “Oh, yeah. I'm, I'm really working.” And it seems like that happened to a lot of people, which leads to a bit of a trap, in that your home is now permanently your office.

Longmire
Because there are so many ways to connect, you really have to create your own barriers, your own boundaries. You have to be really intentional about that for your own well-being. There is this this anxiety around, you know, “I'm, I'm working remotely, how do I, how do I know that my coworkers and my boss knows that I'm that I'm working? Maybe I should pop onto slack and send a few messages.” So I think it's really funny, someone coined the term “LARPing your job.” So live action role playing is a hobby that some people are very interested in. I don't know much more about it than that. But it's really undermining our productivity, because it's taking away from the time that we could be devoting to actual meaningful work or enjoying our lives. So it's just, it's empty communication, it's empty time. And we've got to figure out a way to curb that.

Brannon
So are there real risks for employees in being quote, “too remote”? And I'm thinking of the old adage, out of sight, out of mind. Do you think it will be harder to get a promotion, or maybe even put you at risk for being a target for layoffs, if a company does scale back?

Longmire
Actually, the study that we were discussing before, they didn't find any differences in performance evaluations and promotions between those who were in the office versus those who had the hybrid schedule. But you know, that's hybrid. So you're still getting a little bit of face time. When you're completely remote, I think that is a risk. Because, you know, we've known since the beginning of performance evaluations that they're biased. And we tend to rate more highly employees that we like, employees that are similar to us. And we tend to, in particular, recall the most recent instances of an employee's performance. So that's why doing only yearly performance reviews is actually a terrible idea, because you're really only getting judged based on what you've done in the past couple of weeks. So, you know, based on all that evidence, I would say that it is a risk, but still to be determined on that.

Brannon
We also have to talk about who benefits the most from remote work. And there have been articles about women and people from marginalized groups having a better experience with remote work, to some degree. Is it more advantageous for certain groups than others? What is your take on that?

Longmire
Yeah, so I think for caregivers, the flexibility is huge in helping them to feel more equitable. So, for example, we invited a renowned scholar in our field to come to Tulane to give a talk. I had had dinner with her the night before, and as I'm going to bed, I look at my phone. And my babysitter has sent me a text, “Oh, I am so sorry. I forgot to tell you, I can't come tomorrow.” And I'm like, “Oh, great.” So you know, pre-pandemic, that would have meant that I would have had to miss this talk. And you know, in the, in the grand scheme of things, one talk is not a big deal. But it's cumulative, right? So anyone with kids, with young kids, with caregiver, any caregiving responsibilities, knows that things come up. And they are really great at disrupting your schedule.

So, you know, because Zoom was offered, I was able to attend that talk, even though my kids were at home without childcare. So the flexibility for caregivers is huge. In terms of marginalized groups, we know that there's a lot of burden that comes along with this pressure to code switch while you're in the office. So adapting your preferred self-presentation, the way you dress, the way you talk, your hobbies or interests, to be more conforming to the majority. So working from home, it takes a little bit of that pressure off, takes a little bit of that extra kind of emotional labor that marginalized, employees of marginalized groups have traditionally had to take on. And there's actually one study that looked at the differences between, you know, wearing just your regular, casual, quote “home attire” on Zoom meetings versus actually putting on like, your work clothes, your professional clothes. And they actually found that those who just wore the sweatpants actually felt higher levels of authenticity and engagement than the ones that actually dressed up as if they would have been going into the office.

Brannon
I fully embrace this research.

Longmire
Yes, love it.

Brannon
What was your own experience like, from work from home?

Longmire
You know, I was fortunate enough to be able to work from home. And there are definitely some positives. You know, I like being able to start dinner at four o'clock, so that when my children come in raging hangry, I have something to feed them. You know, I like being able to wear my comfortable clothes, not have to worry about a commute. But I think a huge thing that I learned is that, you know, my organization is giving up this control of structuring my workday. So someone's got to fill that role. And newsflash, it's got to be me. So you have to be really intentional about creating boundaries, like we were just talking about. You know, not checking work email, when you're not working. Being accountable for your goals, you know, setting your own goals on a weekly, and even daily, basis to make sure that you're keeping yourself on track. Building in feedback, because, you know, a huge motivator is when you get instant feedback from your job. So, you know, you do something, you tell your coworker about it, and they say, “Hey, great job.” We don't get that as much anymore. So you have to kind of create that pat on the back, somehow, to keep yourself motivated, and to remind yourself that your work has meaning and that it matters and that you're not just in a vacuum.

Brannon
If you were advising a company, they're they're evaluating their experience. They're they're meeting, and they're deciding where do we go from here – bring everyone back, embrace a hybrid schedule or go fully remote? What should they be looking at?

Longmire
I think they should be looking at giving employees and their direct managers as much say over this decision as possible. Because they know what they need to be productive, much more so than the C-suite does. So it it demonstrates trust, and trust leads to motivation. And and it allows them to figure out the best solution for them. I just don't think that, for the most part, a blanket mandate of everyone come back into the office, no exceptions. People aren't going to stand for that. So, but you know, maybe there's one team, and as a team, and as a manager, they all decide, “Hey, to be productive, to fulfill our work roles, we do need to be in the office most days.” And that's fine. It was their decision. And as long as they're reaching their goals and achieving their metrics, that should be fine.

Brannon
Well, Natalie, thank you for joining us here today.

Longmire
You're so welcome. I enjoyed it.

Brannon
Thank you again for listening to On Good Authority. For more information on other episodes, visit our website tulane.edu/on-good-authority. If you like our show, please subscribe using your favorite podcast app.

 

 

Host: Keith Brannon
Editor: Cooper Powers
Producer: Audrey Burroughs
Production team: Marianna Boyd, Keith Brannon, Audrey Burroughs, Chelsea Christopher, Faith Dawson, Roger Dunaway, Aryanna Gamble, Becca Hildner, and Roman Vaulin

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