Barriers to remote and hybrid work: productivity paranoia and lack of trust

Microsoft have released a new report in their excellent series in work trends.  One of the headlines tells us something that we already know: managers have a trust problem when it comes to working from home.  Microsoft refer to it as ‘productivity paranoia’.  They found that 85% of leaders believe that shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive.  Their research also found that while 87% of employees say that they are productive, only 12% of leaders have full confidence that this is true.

This is, and always has been, one of the most significant barriers to flexible forms of work.

I am currently working on a doctorate in remote work.  I’ve got a little obsessed of late in tracking down old thought pieces and articles on remote work.  Did you know that the very idea of remote work (then defined as ‘teleworking’) was first identified in the mid-1970s?  Before any of the tech that currently supports it even existed?  Charles Handy wrote about it too, in his 1984 book about the future of work.  He argued then that technology might well mean the end of the ‘gathered’ organisation, replacing it with a dispersed one.  There’s been plenty of other predictions along the way too, about just how many of us would be working remotely at certain points in the future.  The earliest I can track the conference favourite ‘work is a thing that we do, not a place that we go’, is 1995.

And yet none of these predictions came true until homeworking was forced upon us by global events.  Throughout that time we have seen many signals of this lack of trust.  From business leaders to politicians, a strong cry that office is best, often with a does of flexshaming thrown in for good measure.  We have seen too, organisations manifesting their lack of trust in remote monitoring, leading to digital presenteeism, hybridteeism or ‘performance theatre’.

There is a significant amount of evidence that employees are productive when they work remotely.  I know, I have read all the papers.  But this isn’t about evidence.  It is about belief, and it is about bias.  The evidence will never convince those that have a deep seated belief that remote work is problematic, or that do not trust the people that work for them.

Microsoft argue that ‘productivity paranoia risks making hybrid work unsustainable’.  I agree with them.  A lack of trust seeps into the entire employment relationship.  When managers have productivity paranoia, it leaks into the way that they behave with and towards their people. It leads to poor management decision making, employee disengagement, and ultimately, retention issues. 

This tension, that has existed for as long as remote working has, is not going away anytime soon.  This might be the biggest challenge that hybrid work faces in the months and years to come.

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