February this year, prior to the pandemic of COVID-19 that drove everyone to work from home, I had a conversation with my boss’s boss’s boss (boss-ception!), the SVP of our company. During this conversation, I proposed an improvement be made to allow the flexibility of work from home without needing an excuse (a sick child, a plumber at the house, etc.)
Of course it was not well received at the time. Even though he acknowledged my desire of working from home can be completely honorable and beneficial to him and the company in the short term, he doesn’t believe that we can succeed / advance in the company if he allows us to work from home. He believes that there are certain optics employee should maintain. Socializing with coworkers daily is something he values highly. He likes walking around and being able to greet everyone. (Little did he know that within a week from our conversation, COVID-19 will force him to eat his own words and allow everyone to work from home!)
He’s not alone in thinking that way and he has his reasons for doubting if employees would be productive working from home. I would argue that giving employee the flexibility to work from home is the best thing for everyone long term.
In Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, Ariely describes two types of norm; social norm and market norm. A neighbor helping to move a mattress inside of your new home is an example of a social norm. If instead, you offer your neighbor $1 for moving your mattress, it could very well send them storming off angrily. Why? Because how dare you undervalue their labor to $1, and insult them with the fact that helping you now is only worth a dollar?
Dan Ariely argues that 1) social norm trumps market norm, 2) people should not mix social norms with market norms (watch this short video where he explains it).
Changing something from social norm to market norm decreases the amount of efficiency, and changing it back decrease the efficiency even more. Ariely used an example to describe this phenomenon. A daycare was having trouble getting parents to pick up their children on time at closing, so they decided to impose a fine on parents who picked their children up late. This led to more parents picking their kids up late because what used to be a social norm (i.e., not being on time & inconveniencing others) is now market norm (i.e., a fine). Therefore, people are happy to pay the fine and have their guilt wiped away. Realizing this mistake, the daycare removed the fine after some time. Now there are even more parents that are late, because now there is no penalty on picking their children up late at all!
Moral to the story is, whether businesses decides to go with social norm (the warm and fluffy feeling of “we are in it together”) or market norm (“time in exchange for money”), they should stick to it, and not switch back and forth.
Reality is usually the opposite.
Social norm operates better than market norms, even in work environments.
Ariely argues that social relationships have a lot of advantages. They protect us from future fluctuation. They give us trust and confidence. Even though it might be financially inefficient to circumvent and hide money aspect into gifts and favors, it is still a good deal because you get to keep something that is very valuable which is social relationships.
This is why, most companies choose to operate under social norms for their day-to-day working environment. Just like most other companies, my company wanted to use social norms to build a strong bond with employees to motivate them to work harder. We had a “flex-Friday” work arrangement where every other Friday can be taken off if the employee worked an extra 8 hours into the rest of the two-week period (e.g., an extra hour a day from Monday – Thursday for two weeks).
After a year, they decided to no longer allow flex-Friday or work from home because someone abused this flexibility. The company announced that employees can only work from home under unavoidable circumstances such as a sick child, water leak etc. If someone is working remotely, he/she is required to respond to emails within 15 minutes to prove that he/she is working. In a sense, the company has imposed a “fine” (15 minute response time) on working from home.
This has stirred up quite a bit of backlash from my colleagues. Nobody was really happy that they are being punished for someone else’s mistake. To take it one step further, if we follow the logic of replying to emails within 15 minutes if working remotely, it is sending a message that (1) if I work from the office, then I do not have a deadline on replying emails, and (2) the social norm of being an adult and getting my job done turns into: as long as I respond emails within 15 minutes I can take the day off!
Now this is becoming a similar mistake the daycare has made from Ariely’s example by switching between social norms and market norms. Now even if the company remove the 15 minute deadline and allow employees to work from home, it will only give employees even more procrastination with no guidelines.
If companies choose to operate under a social norm, they should keep the social norm to best motivate employees. Flexibility at work means the willingness and ability to respond to changing circumstances and expectations readily. Companies always assume employees should be willing to respond to changing circumstances at work to show flexibility towards corporations, but the same level of flexibility is not given to employees in return. By providing flexibility to employees, companies show that they trust their employees as adults to do what needs to be done. By providing flexibility, companies can still show that the social norm is the dominant force at work.
Although at this time when I am writing the article, we are knee deep in the quarantine zone and everyone is working from home (the lucky ones who gets to keep our jobs).
I fear that once the quarantine is over, we will resort back to the old ways and have learned absolutely nothing about our ability and capacity of working from home. Worse yet, maybe my boss would even magnify all the negativities and difficulties he had faced during the quarantine time, and use them as reasons why he should not allow employees to work from home.
I am not advocating working from home for everyone. I have had colleagues telling me that they find working from home more distracting because of young children, or because they do not have designated work spaces. I only argue for the option of working from home for those who desire it.
I argue that if companies give more flexibility and allow employees to work from home (or work from ANYWHERE), they will see the increase in employee’s productivity, longevity, and job satisfaction.
The previous decades were filled with digital disrupters of industries: Airbnb, Uber, Tesla reimagining the new world in travel, hospitality, and transportation. I would make the bold statement that in the next 10 years, working from home is inevitable. Companies would attract and retain more talent if they become the first in disrupting our office culture, and allow working from home to become the new norm, the new social norm.