23 Mar COVID-19 and the Workplace of the Future: Increasing Employee Outcomes Through Work Location Autonomy
COVID-19 has forced most office-based employees to work remotely, which almost certainly means working from home. Working remotely is something that has slowly gained acceptance in the business world over the past 10 years or so based on my own experiences. Over the past three years, I have worked remotely full-time as a business consultant and full-time student. Prior to this, I worked for “Big 4” accounting firms for the prior five years. My employers certainly embraced my working remotely when I was “on the road” to see clients and generate new business. However, my recollection about working from home in the period from 2011 through 2016 is that it was largely tolerated and met mostly with skepticism rather than being embraced. I perceived working from home to be governed under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If I told someone that I was working from home, then it felt as though doing so was met with instinctive skepticism. My current hypothesis is that the COVID-19 work from home experiment will shift from skepticism to positive acceptance. I believe that this difficult situation will ultimately pay major dividends for both employees and employers. I expect that the current situation will increase the understanding that openly allowing employees the choice of work location – even if it is their home – will increase empowerment, productivity, and individual well-being (Spivack & Milosevic, 2018).
From my perspective as an employee, I’ve always believed that willingly allowing employees to work from the location of their choosing (e.g., home, office, remote desert island) would result in optimal productivity. However, over 20 years of being a professional consultant, I have matured and became motivated enough to place my work responsibilities in front of the distractions that lurk in remote working setups. I suspect that I had earned the trust of my employers and clients by being responsive and meeting short-term (e.g., attending calls in a timely fashion) and long-term obligations (e.g., completing project deadlines on time). However, on average, the consulting managers that I worked with always seemed at least a bit leery of remote work arrangements because they couldn’t fully trust their teams to stay on task. I’m not sure if this lack of trust was actually justified or if the lack of control that these managers had created irrational fear about work not being completed as required. Ultimately, I think much of the distrust was passed down generationally from managers who adhered to a traditional “top-down” management approach. Labor Process Theory (LPT; Spivack & Milosevic, 2018) “posits that management’s primary concern is to institute mechanisms of control and surveillance in order to extract maximal work effort from workers in the pursuit of organizational goals” (p. 329). It is probably safe to say that LPT drives traditional management thinking even if managers aren’t actually aware that such a theory actually exists.
My shift to full-time work from home was predicated on my pursuing an online master’s degree in sport psychology. Theoretically, this transition should have been very difficult because of all of the distractions at home – family, electronics, etc. However, my experience was just the opposite. I loved the freedom associated with building my own schedule. More importantly, I loved what I was doing. I was intrinsically motivated to do the work, so the distractions weren’t more appealing than my primary responsibilities. During my graduate sport psychology training, I became very interested in motivational theories, particularly Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory (SDT). SDT posits that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are primary basic psychological needs that must be satisfied in order to generate intrinsic motivation and internalization (Gagne & Deci, 2005). Intrinsic motivation can reasonably be defined as enjoying a task simply for the sake of doing it. No rewards or punishments are required to act. SDT is effectively applied to sport settings. Up until now, my interest in the SDT research was almost exclusively related to sport and exercise participation. However, SDT is applied in many different contexts, including in the work setting. Research has found that managers providing autonomy-support for their employees has resulted in a number of positive outcomes, such as great employee satisfaction, better employee performance, as well as greater trust and greater acceptance of organizational change (Gagne & Deci, 2005).
From where I sit, giving employees at least some autonomy over their work location – regardless of where that might be – is the greatest form of trust that a manager could extend. I know from my own consulting experience that when I was entrusted with the flexibility to do my job as I saw fit that I was much more productive and effective. In some ways, it was like running my own consulting business. I was responsible for generating new revenue streams, delivering client work, and maintaining cash flow (i.e., billing and collecting). If I was successful, then it meant positive outcomes like increased compensation and promotion. If I wasn’t successful, then I was responsible for that outcome. Either way, I felt as though I had a choice on how to operate, which generally yielded greater satisfaction, greater performance, and perhaps most importantly, greater efficiency. However, my experience is just one case study. It does not mean that every employee that is granted the freedom to work from the location of their choice is going to have the same types of positive outcomes. Behavioral workplace research seems to back up the idea that allowing employees the autonomy to choose their work location is a good move even if it doesn’t seem correct instinctively.
Spivack and Milosevic (2018) studied the effect of perceived location autonomy on work outcomes. The authors’ findings suggest that giving employees the choice of work location is likely to lead to greater productivity and well-being. More specifically, Spivack and Milosevic found that “individuals with higher perceived location autonomy were more likely to choose (emphasis added) work environments that enhanced their productivity and well-being” (p. 339). Put another way, employees will self-select into the best workplace decisions if given the choice. Now, let’s be clear: The need to work from home during the COVID-19 quarantine is mandatory in almost all cases. What I am suggesting here is that the current situation, which is being thrust upon employees and employers, is a great way to get comfortable with remote working arrangements on an extended basis and test out different strategies for optimizing productivity. Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis can be used as a laboratory for workplace innovation? Perhaps companies and their managers increase trust and reduce instincts to control employees after being thrust into this situation?
I would be lacking in awareness if I didn’t admit that I am biased toward the perspective of the employee since I’ve been an employee for so long. However, I’ve become a business owner and self-employed within the last three years and I have come to thrive under flexible work conditions. Ultimately, business owners and management must protect the underlying business. It may be naive to think that organizations would make an extreme shift to a wholesale acceptance of employee work location choices. However, the COVID-19 situation is creating the opportunity for organizations to evaluate this idea more closely to see if more practical evidence might exist to extend employees’ location autonomy once the COVID-19 work from home quarantine ends. The benefits of experiment might include not only “top-line” employee productivity (i.e., greater revenues), but the ability to reduce operating expenses through streamlining brick-and-mortar footprints. I suspect that if employers experience these significant benefits through the COVID-19 work at home experiment that a long-term shift in the workplace of the future will occur even if relinquishing control to the employee is unnatural.
Gagne, M., & Deci, E.L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362.
Spivack, A.J., & Milosevic, I. (2018). Perceived location autonomy and work environment choice: The mediating influence of intrinsic motivation. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 54(3), 325-348.