Flextime, telecommuting and consulting are no longer the new kids on the block. Twenty years or so ago they were exhibits a, b and c in the revolution of the workplace. Flexible time was to address the fact that few people live in social isolation. Telecommuting took advantage of technology and reduced overhead costs. Consulting was (in theory) to offer flexibility to workers and (in actuality) to save companies lots and lots of money. It was assumed, that work is work whether a boss (or colleagues) can see it being done or not. Ah how adorably naive we were.
Coincidence or not what is considered ‘productivity’ in the workplace has changed during the same period that these words became de rigueur. It’s difficult, and perhaps irrelevant to determine which came first, but my money is on the vernacular as the forerunner. Somewhere post Working Girl, Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street office life changed. There was a time (think really big hair) that getting the work done; in relative isolation was the norm. Most industries did not dictate group work, teams, or even presentations. There was little time spent selling oneself internally or making sure one looked as if one was working. The latter really took flight with advances in technology. How grand it is to set one’s alarm or code one’s email to appear to be working at 3:00 AM on a Sunday (during a 3-day weekend!) It would be wonderful if this “look at me, I’m working” approach was not a direct response to flextime, telecommuting and consulting. After all the very raison d’être of exhibits a, b and c is to not be engaging in work as performance art but instead to be producing perhaps invisiblly to the naked eye.
The workplace can be a very paranoid place indeed. There’s something about a shared microwave that breeds immaturity and pettiness as well. (Seriously people don’t ordinarily go around stealing each other’s food and leaving fuzzy congealed cartons in the refrigerator. But in the workplace we’re all 15 again.) It is (almost) natural to pit oneself against others and when others aren’t visible things get complicated and messy. Of course it doesn’t have to be this way.
Good leadership can create an environment of collaboration and support. A leader who understands how flexible work schedules and home offices can be beneficial will make it work. An organization that rewards productivity, stewardship and penalizes wastes of time, money and people will create more harmony among workers. But to do any of these things demands very skilled leaders. Perhaps there are people born with an innate sense of organizational behavior and social psychology, but I’ve yet to meet them. Being the best widget designer, or bond trader or scientist does not prepare one for being a great supervisor. It might seem a minor point, the cultivation of good bosses, but an awful lot hinges upon it.
As the ‘look at me I’m working’ approach becomes more popular, productivity is not necessarily increasing. Technology and real life lend themselves to working remotely, yet workers are often penalized (overtly or subtly) for availing themselves of the options. Neither of these workplace revolutions supports our economy or employment. Having people work more, do less and burn out quicker is not sustainable. Marginalizing talent who avail themselves of company policies is shortsighted. Much is said about preparing young people for the workplace. Enough cannot be said about preparing workers for leadership positions.