Harvard researcher on the ideal balance of remote to office working
Harvard professor Prithwiraj Choudhury has been studying hybrid models for several years. He explains what his latest research indicates about the optimal ratio of remote to office working
For many people, the past two-plus years have felt like some vast experiment in which they’ve tested new ways of working, socialising and finding the right work/life balance. As organisations adopt varying models while the Covid crisis abates, the experiment is ongoing.
Amid all the flux, Prithwiraj Choudhury, who studies the future of work as an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, is sure of one thing: hybrid working is here to stay.
“I don’t think any CEO should try to turn back time. Workers will demand flexibility – and rightfully so,” he says, warning that firms which have obliged staff to return to HQ five days a week will find it harder to recruit and retain talent.
Choudhury has been a prominent advocate of remote working, especially the work-from-anywhere (WFA) model, since before the pandemic. His studies have indicated that majority-remote work can result in greater productivity and offer improvements in work/life balance.
For instance, a 2019 research report he co-wrote about a WFA scheme that had started in 2012 at the US Patent and Trademark Office concluded that the arrangement had boosted productivity, as measured by the number of patent applications examined each month, by 4.4%. Participating employees also said that the flexibility this had granted them to live anywhere in the continental US had afforded them a better quality of life.
Striking the right balance
The widespread Covid-enforced shift to remote working has brought similar benefits to employees around the world, according to Choudhury. In particular, he points to findings from a 2020 field experiment that he and colleagues from Harvard and Stanford University ran on hybrid working with 130 members of admin staff at the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, one of the world’s largest NGOs.
Over a nine-week period, they found that employees who were spending between 23% and 40% of their working time in the office had found the optimum combination. According to the working paper they published in March, this was the sweet spot where staff “enjoy flexibility and yet are not as isolated compared with peers who are predominantly working from home”.
Crucially, people in this “intermediate” group produced the most original work, as measured by the novelty of their email communications. They also received better performance ratings than peers who’d adopted different patterns, including fully office-based working.
“It’s the first real-world experiment I’m aware of that’s trying to find out how different levels of hybrid work affect work outcomes,” Choudhury says.
Another recent study by academics from Stanford and Columbia University has focused on the ability of remote meetings to replicate the type of creative collaboration associated with in-person confabs. Published in the journal Nature in April, it indicated that videoconferencing inhibits innovation because it forces the participants to concentrate too much on their computer screens.
That study found that colleagues connecting virtually generated fewer ideas compared with participants interacting face to face, because their narrowed focus “constrains the associative process underlying idea generation”. Anyone who’s weary of the sight of Zoom grids on their monitor might well concur. The finding indicates that any brainstorming sessions are best reserved for the occasions when people are gathered in the same space.
But Choudhury believes that asynchronous communication may help to foster creativity when people are working remotely. Through tools such as Google Docs, a Slack channel or a corporate intranet, employees can share ideas and trust their colleagues, perhaps in different time zones, to read and digest these when they’re ready and respond with more considered thoughts of their own.
“I wake up, read your ideas, take the dog for a walk, think about what you’ve written, come back and add my thoughts,” he suggests. “The argument for the asynchronous-first brainstorming model is that it leads to more deep work.”
Is hybrid working here to stay?
Such factors are partly why Choudhury backs the WFA arrangements that have been gaining in popularity since the pandemic. Airbnb, for instance, joined businesses such as Facebook, Twitter, Deloitte and PwC in April in allowing employees to work permanently from any location of their choice.
This clearly offers employees great flexibility, so a worker with ageing parents, say, could choose to move nearer to them to provide better eldercare. It could also reduce the kind of career conflict that can occur between couples when one partner gets a dream job that requires the other to make sacrifices in their own career.
“We have been constrained in our lives by geography for decades. WFA sets us free,” Choudhury says.
While a tech startup may be ideally suited to WFA, his research suggests that large organisations can adopt the approach successfully, too. For instance, Tata Consultancy Services, the Indian IT giant that employs more than 500,000 people, is shifting to a model where its employees will spend a quarter of their working hours at HQ. But schedules must be coordinated within its various groups to capitalise on the limited time they do spend together in the office.
“Every team at the start of the financial year has to put in everyone’s calendar when those co-location days will be,” Choudhury notes.
WFA isn’t necessarily limited to so-called knowledge work, either, he adds. A recent case study he has co-written examines pilot projects by Unilever to digitise its manufacturing operations. That initiative, started in 2018 at a facility in Brazil, has enabled factory employees to work remotely, with no change to staffing levels. The company is looking into the feasibility of creating a global virtual control room to oversee operations at its 200 production sites worldwide.
“A control engineer could now live on a beach in Barbados,” he muses.
Adapting to the hybrid world
Some employers are serving notice that having the best of both worlds comes with a catch. London law firm Stephenson Harwood, for instance, recently said it would let staff work remotely, but at 20% less than their current salary. The pay cut reflects the reduced expense of not having to commute into the capital. It also makes the choice of whether to work from home a tougher one.
Such moves reflect how varying policies are likely to emerge around remote work beyond the simple matter of whether to allow it or not, says Choudhury, who notes that Airbnb, in allowing staff to work from anywhere in the US, will keep them at the same pay.
“My prediction is that companies with more flexible policies – and pay-equitable policies – will continue to interact with their teams better,” he says.
Flexible working arrangements stemming from the pandemic have also prompted debates about their impact on firms’ choices about whom to award promotions. Getting face time with the boss has long been seen as a key to moving up the career ladder. So a staffer who spends more time in the office around senior managers might have a better shot at advancement than a colleague who works mostly at home.
Choudhury acknowledges that this is “a real concern”. One way to address the issue is to revamp how performance is measured, so that evaluations are based only on the quality and quantity of output, not how many days someone comes to the office, he says.
But that’s simply part of the broader restructuring that business leaders must tackle to adapt their organisations to the new working paradigm. Key measures would include enabling asynchronous communication, creating “internal Wikipedias” of company knowledge and aligning people’s schedules to maximise in-person collaboration, mentorship and socialising.
“What you really need as a company to support hybrid working and WFA is to install a new set of management practices,” Choudhury stresses. “This work has to be led from the top – the CEO and the whole C suite must embrace it.”