Certainly that’s what some senior executives have suggested, as the effort to fill empty Covid offices has gathered pace this year. Telecommuting is suitable for the “less engaged,” according to WeWork boss Sandeep Mathrani. It’s not good for people who want to “push the envelope,” says Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase.
But what if the reverse is true? Max Thowless-Reeves is a former UBS private banker who runs his own wealth management firm in Stafford, north Birmingham, where he is a visiting professor at Aston Business School.
Not long ago, he wrote a letter to the FT which requested an arrest. “Mediocrity lurks in offices,” he said, adding that it was easier to identify which staff added the most value when all were working remotely. When I called him last week to find out why, he said something interesting. During the pandemic, his company had started using Google Docs a lot more, which meant people were working on the same hardware at the same time, from their respective homes.
“You can see everyone typing on the same document,” he said, adding that this meant you could also see who responded quickly to a query, or made a helpful suggestion, or generally contributed – and who did not.
“It became clear to us – and it wasn’t before – which team members were really pushing us forward,” he said.
His company has only 15 employees, but his experience is worth remembering. Just because someone is in the office, in front of your nose, doesn’t mean that they are doing something as useful as someone who works hard, but invisibly, at home. The debate does not end there.
A few weeks ago I received an email from a retired businessman in England trying to complete three separate real estate deals. Her parents had recently passed away, leaving enough money for each of her two children to secure a mortgage on a first house in London. So, in addition to selling his parents’ house, he was helping his two children manage a real estate purchase in London.
This meant he was dealing with three groups of realtors, surveyors, mortgage lenders and lawyers, all of whom worked quite a bit from home and provided what he said was an “amazing continuing level of service. and not professional ”.
This included: researching the wrong property; the wrong selling price on a vital contract; the wrong term on a mortgage application and the wrong names typed in the documents. To top it off, a lawyer failed to withdraw the necessary mortgage funds in time to complete, leaving one of her children with the loss of their down payment and homeless.
So were the workers mediocre or was there something else to blame? This man thought that remote working itself might be the problem.
“I think working from home tipped the scales into chaos,” he said, adding that it was possible that people were overwhelmed and left alone. The work of a lawyer whom he had used three times in the past without any problem – when she worked in an office – was “riddled with errors” now that she was confined to her home.
This is of course an isolated case. But that aligns with some of the findings of a study that looked at how more than 10,000 workers at a large Asian tech company fared before and after Covid forced them to return home.
The researchers found that the total number of hours worked increased by about 30 percent, which included much of the work done outside of regular working hours.
But overtime did not result in any increase in production, so the study concluded that overall productivity fell by about 20 percent.
This does not necessarily make work from home skeptics right. The study did not directly measure the quality of the work performed. All of this highlights the complexity of Covid’s great teleworking experience – and why it is still too early to draw firm conclusions.