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MIND YOUR BUSINESS

Allen Harris: What is work from home, really?

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Working from home can lead to more production, but columnist Allen Harris suggests that's just because employees are exercising time blocking techniques.

Things are getting back to normal since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. TSA check-ins are at 90.7 percent and restaurant reservations at 86.6 percent of their pre-pandemic levels. However, businesses are still having trouble getting employees back into offices.

According to Kastle’s Back to Work Barometer, office occupancy is 41.2 percent as employees work from home, compared to nearly 100 percent pre-pandemic. Employers recognize that an office-first environment fosters learning, peer input, vision and mission alignment, communication, and important relationships.

A 2012 Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization study found that an entire office will underperform if everyone works from home. Further, a 2019 Organizational and Economic Sociology study showed a diminishing return on WFH productivity as new distractions were found.

The work from home (WFH) phenomenon that became a necessity throughout the pandemic has become a perquisite for white-collar employees whose physical presence isn’t required on site. Many large companies have had enough and are demanding employees return to the office. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, issued an ultimatum to the company’s WFH employees, telling them they should return to the office or resign and “pretend to work somewhere else.”

Other large companies, such as Goldman Sachs and Netflix, have adopted an office-first strategy. Google, Bank of NY, IBM, Yahoo, Aetna, and Best Buy are shifting from a hybrid system to eliminate most WFH options.

Many employees want to continue to work remotely. However, some perceived worker benefits may be fleeting. A 2020 study from Airtasker found that 29 percent of WFH employees struggled with finding a healthy work-life balance. However, just 23 percent of office workers reported the same.

There are some real travel benefits for workers. The average American’s commute time is 56 minutes per day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The eliminated commute allows more time for family, leisure and errands. Unfortunately, personal errands can be left unattended for weeks by WFH employees.

Sheila, the owner of an accounting firm in Great Barrington, helps employees with errands during the tax time sprint by employing a corporate assistant. The assistant delivers lunch, brings cars to get cleaned and serviced, buys groceries, sits at home for appliance installation, etc. This helping hand saves several hours per week for employees, offsetting some commute time.

Workers who are reluctant to return to the office may point to their improved productivity. However, while their productivity may have increased, it was not merely a change in location that caused this. WFH is really just forced time blocking. WFH eliminated people “bothering” co-workers throughout the day. Employees can return to the office and maintain increased productivity if you teach them to respect boundaries. It’s old-school time blocking.

Tim, an executive at a Pittsfield-based bank, experimented with time blocking in 2018 and failed. Managers would select three-hour chunks of times on various weekdays that were blocked out from assignments.

Assistants followed the time blocking rules and did not schedule any meetings during those times for the managers. However, the managers would pick up phone calls, reply to e-mails, neglect to close their doors, and forgetting to put up a do not disturb sign. Instead of working on projects, they remained reactive to client and co-worker demands.

Then, in 2020, Tim’s employees were instructed to WFH, and productivity skyrocketed. Fellow workers couldn’t walk into the office and interrupt colleagues anymore. The urgency of returning nonpriority e-mails faded and allowed continuous, noninterrupted efforts on critical projects.

Also, WFH mandated that asynchronous communication replace the seeming necessity that everyone must be in the same room at the same time to make decisions. In other words, WFH is practically day-long time blocking.

The advice given to WFH employees (make a to-do list, prioritize a task, work on it for 30-45 uninterrupted minutes, take 5- to 10-minute breaks, then continue) was a copy-and-paste from the time blocking playbook. It has just been working better from home than from the office because the WFH’ers aren’t facing peer or management pressure to become distracted during those 30-45 minutes.

It’s a struggle to get your team to operate at their most effective rate because they’re awesome people. While they are loyal to the firm, they also have relationships with their colleagues.

Your employees also don’t want their peers to think they’re shirking responsibilities. Consequently, when employees are given a task that may be important but not urgent, they stop what they are doing to react. As if connected like links in a chain, employee yield is then dragged down. Meaningful work cannot be completed in a timely fashion unless it is prioritized and focused on.

Don’t ignore your potential role in the situation. If you charge an employee with an assignment at the last minute, then you’re responsible for some of the drag on output. Especially if that duty has no clear direction, clarity of priorities, and a vague follow-up protocol.

Also, suppose you expect your employees to constantly be available to you immediately via e-mail or other channels. In that case, you are partially to blame for not providing them with the boundaries required to be focused on their work.

Time blocking is easy to understand but apparently tricky to execute. It is a time management method where, instead of just checking things off the to-do list when you get a chance, you dedicate periods to a specific task or project.

You know what it is, but you may not have been able to get your team — or even yourself — to stick to it. Or you’ve been doing it wrong — instead of scheduling work, you’ve been scheduling interruption. If you don’t schedule time for your important work — and respect that schedule — then you risk not getting to it.

Time blocking software may be the tool you need to make your office accountable. Some to consider are Plan, Sunsama, Reclaim, Tick Tick, Todoist, Motion and TimeBloc. Software is easy to apply across the team, which is helpful because it creates group buy-in. Team agreement will make it more difficult for others to steal your time unwittingly.

I’m not suggesting eliminating WFH, but you should know that increased productivity is a false reason to offer it. You should take lessons learned from remote working and apply them to an office-first environment.

Allen Harris is the owner of Berkshire Money Management in Dalton. He can be reached at aharris@berkshiremm.com.

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