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Bringing People Back TO The Office – Are We Better At Home Or ‘At Work’?

It’s novel (at least it was) – working from home.  When you joined your employer, you asked about flexibility – hoping that work from home was an option at least some of the time.  Sick child?  Work from home.  Winter storm?  Work from home.  Contractors coming to the house for a project?  Work from home. 

But all the time?

COVID-19 changed the rules.  Many of us, accustomed to an office environment, were immediately thrust into a new realty – we had to work from home (or at least NOT in the office).  And surprise – work was accomplished.  Business continued (altered by the changes in the economy).  People were productive. 

Week 18

Today (July 28, 2020) is week 18 for me – the 18th week where I have had only one co-worker come into the office (for a few hours – yesterday).  Zoom has replaced seeing people ‘live’; e-mails, texts and phone calls have increased in frequency as our methods of communication.  BUT . . . . . are we growing tired of this?  Is productivity going to stay where is was when we started working from home?  

The 1920’s/1930’s

I remember studying about how employers worked on changing productivity levels – studies called the Hawthorne Studies.  From an article on the topic (see

  • The results of the studies indicated that increases in performance were tied to a complex set of employee attitudes. Mayo claimed that both experimental and control groups from the plant had developed a sense of group pride because they had been selected to participate in the studies. The pride that came from this special attention motivated the workers to increase their productivity. Supervisors who allowed the employees to have some control over their situation appeared to further increase the workers’ motivation. These findings gave rise to what is now known as the Hawthorne effect, which suggests that employees will perform better when they feel singled out for special attention or feel that management is concerned about employee welfare. The studies also provided evidence that informal work groups (the social relationships of employees) and the resulting group pressure have positive effects on group productivity. The results of the Hawthorne studies enhanced our understanding of what motivates individuals in the workplace. They indicate that in addition to the personal economic needs emphasized in the classical era, social needs play an important role in influencing work-related attitudes and behaviors.

The Answer

Too early to tell!  Small companies seem to be a bit faster in bringing office workers back to the workplace – within the levels of their comfort (safety and health).  Smaller companies can adapt.  Larger companies have a greater challenge . . . . . imagine hundreds or thousands of workers coming into a building – through the same door, in the same elevator and in the same cubical area. (And they all need coffee at the same time as well!) 

The answer is not yet written – and will likely change as society learns to live with COVID-19 the way we have learned to live with the flu (where we have a vaccine).  Masks, social-distancing, new cleaning protocols, flexibility – all evolving.  The key – keep the dialogue going.  Assure you are engaging people based on their diverse needs/situation. 

More will be written about this – for years to come.  We’ll report on it when we know . . . . . which may be in hindsight (the way we report on the Hawthorne Studies).