For at least a decade, the ability to work productively, anywhere, at any time, has been a promise of modern technology. Tech companies have promoted utopian visions of employees working independently and carefree from their homes, holiday destination and even from the depths of the ocean - all while meaningfully connected to colleagues working from equally exotic locations. Work is something you do, not somewhere you go.
But we are creatures of habit and these visions have, arguably, been stifled by our fear and resistance to change and desire for control. Technology isn’t the inhibitor - almost every company already uses modern technology with the capabilities to achieve these seemingly future work styles. But just using it shouldn't be mistaken with making good use of it. Old habits die hard.
Yes, this doesn't align with the habitual constructs of what's considered a typical workday. Requiring a full-time presence at a physical place of work forms a span of control that shifts focus more on input than output. We're conditioned towards "putting in the hours" in exchange for rewards – a throwback to the principal-agent theory that's existed since the dawn of industrialisation. That same theory reduces autonomy through the way many of us have learned to work: a bias towards waiting for instructions and clock-watching to determine when we've served the time for which we're being paid.
Similarly, being connected, in a personal and emotional sense, is proving more difficult in modern, open office environments (which, ironically, are designed to encourage collaboration and relationships). A recent Harvard Business Review study found that open-spaced offices trigger a response to withdraw socially, reducing face to face interaction by around 70%. The lack of privacy also causes a decrease in transparency. People don't feel like they can be their authentic self, and so they adopt a conscious "work" persona (my colleague Marea Phillips discussed this in a post here.) Like a well-trained actor, we form a strong habit around purposefully not breaking the fourth wall – essentially disconnecting from those who are outside our immediate scene.
If only there were some big compelling event to break us from the shackles of old habits and controls.
Enter a pandemic.
As a forcing function of change and a cause of losing control, pandemics are right up there. Suddenly, companies have had to change the way they worked or risk not working at all. For many, it's shone an entirely new light on technology and its true capabilities. It's given them a practical glimpse of that utopian vision. And now, they're hooked.
On the surface, remote working is the hero here. But the dopamine hit feeding the addiction isn't from remote working itself. It comes from a much deeper place.
It's a place all leaders need to understand if they want to excel in this new world of work.
Pink's observation of what creates our inner drive has never resonated more with me as it has in the past few months of my journey as a leader at Insight. While working remotely was the action we (and almost everyone else) took in the moment, it's become clear what's genuinely driven our team successfully through the turmoil: new levels of autonomy and empathy.
Forced isolation, it turns out, forms a mutual trust and respect, which both erodes that fourth wall and breaks the principal-agent theory.
With the fourth wall gone, people appear more genuinely connected than ever. An irony given they've never been so physically distant. There are less conscious work personas and more raw authenticity – which brings a shared empathy as everyone is reminded that, behind the titles, we're all just humans with similar quirks and desires, motivations and fears.
Then, with some of those industrialisation-age constraints of clock watching and instruction giving removed, the focus shifts away from input to outcomes. Just as Pink suggests, this newfound autonomy leads to unprecedented engagement. People demand ways to use the technology they already have to collaborate more effectively and be more productive. They test and experiment, essentially hacking together their own construct of the perfect workday for them and the outcomes they must achieve.
For many, this doesn't look like your standard eight-hour workday. Instead, it's blocks of work scattered with other tasks and obligations that are important to us. At Insight, we already had a good level of organisational tolerance for this flexibility. Still, I've seen it grow to another level, given the results we see as measured by meaningful outcomes.
Remote working isn't a new idea. Nor is it one that'll go away. Its popularity and practicality will continue to trend up and down across different people in different industries at different times. Autonomy and empathy, however, are applicable across all industries and every human in any environment. If the principal-agent theory was the default incentivisation method of the industrialisation age, then autonomy and empathy is the motivational and productivity strategy for the information age and into our new world of working.