Is It Necessary to Return to the Office or Work From Home?
This article will discuss whether knowledge workers should return to their cubicle, or if they should continue on as they have been.
To understand the issue, we should examine why knowledge workers moved out of their cubicles in the first place.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, new technologies enabled us to “work from anywhere.” We could constantly check our email and instant messages from any computer or device. Software became available for capturing notes at meetings and for storing information on drop boxes or even on paper disks that we could copy to our home computers. These tools allowed us to work from anywhere—from the back seat of a car, a train, an airplane or even another continent! (Of course, these tools also enabled others to steal information. Sadly that has been a fact of life for centuries, but it used to be much simpler and less disruptive.)
The freedom we gained from being able to work from anywhere did not come without a cost. Our ability to work from anywhere was a boon for knowledge workers, but it also made it more difficult for managers to control us. But there was a bigger issue. How could managers justify paying knowledge workers an hourly wage when they were not working?
In the 1990s, people were paid for the number of hours they worked on tasks that could be measured. If a programmer worked eight hours on a piece of code, he or she was paid for those eight hours. If an engineer had to spend eight hours fixing someone else’s mistake, the engineer got nothing. If an IT person was diligently troubleshooting something at 2 o’clock in the morning, he or she did not get paid for that work.
The problem was that “time” was being measured by the tasks, and not by the output. In any knowledge worker job, no matter how hard you work, there are only a limited number of hours in a day. Knowledge workers have been notoriously poor at time management (they see too many ways to get their work done), and they often worked long hours when their managers were not watching. But working on tasks that were never finished meant no output, and no pay.
Another issue with this pay system is that it treats knowledge workers like livestock in a feeding barn. The barn is “open-plan,” and the livestock can graze anywhere. The problem is that people, unlike cattle, have different nutritional needs. Some need a strict vegetarian diet; others will eat only vegetables with certain spices; still, others will eat only meat. Knowledge workershave all sorts of dietary needs when it comes to intellectual food, and managers cannot (and should not) keep track of the details.
The result of this pay system was that knowledge workers realized that it was not worth working for their hourly wage if they had to sit at a desk in an office from 9 to 5 every day. Instead, many would take their laptops home and work from there. Knowledge worker productivity soared as people could work when it was most appropriate for them.
Managers quickly recognized the problem here. Knowledge workers needed to have constant access to their files, email, and instant messaging from any computer or device, no matter where they were. But if the workers were not physically at work, then how could managers know that they were working? The solution was to give the knowledge workers increasingly powerful laptop computers so that they could work from anywhere, but with a “home use, only” program so that managers could track their daily activities. This tracking included time spent on email and Instant Messenger conversations. In some companies, this also included tracking time spent in the company cafeteria.
Thus managers were able to stop worrying that knowledge workers were not working their full-time hours while still receiving full-time pay. They also gained some control over their employees, since they could change the computing rules whenever they felt like it, as long as knowledge workers had a laptop with them at all times. Managers thus got paid for all of the work being done by knowledge workers, but now only when those workers were physically present at the office.
But there were still some problems. Knowledge workers did not like that the managers could track their every move. In addition, we were all finding that we could no longer work at peak performance when we were reconstituting our energies in a cubicle every morning and then back to our home office in the afternoon. So a new trend began, as knowledge workers planned their days around the time it took them to get from home to work and back again. By doing so, they would be able to get into work focused and ready for business, instead of going through an extended “reset” period when they first got into the office each day.
It was also noted that knowledge workers who could not get to the office every day early in the morning were often distracted by their work at home. They would work on something which was not to their full standards and which they could have done better and more effectively if they had been in the office.
Knowledge workers thus began to understand that they needed to be at peak performance each day, no matter what time it was when they got into the office. This resulted in another change—knowledge workers began taking “sick days” so that if a problem came up during their lunch hour, they could head home for a couple of hours and then return to finish up later. This also extended the amount of time they could spend with their families during the week.Knowledge workers also began to notice that if they were not working their best at peak times, then they were slowing down other people’s ability to work their best at peak times. This would slow everyone else down as well. Thus, if a project was not going to be ready on time, we tried to reschedule when it was due so that we could turn in our best work on time.
One other major problem with being an hourly wage worker is that you do not own anything about your work, and you have no idea what your value is until someone buys it from you.
In conclusion, I would like to state that the knowledge worker movement has been a huge success in maintaining our country’s competitiveness in the global market. We do not have to work as many hours, and we are able to keep up with other nations’ knowledge workers who are working longer hours. We are also able to keep up with information technology advances, and we are able to work in a culture designed around the idea that knowledge is our ultimate value. We have been able to formwork environments where everyone feels that they own their work and where there is no hierarchy. If a manager wants to know how we are doing at any given time, they can go online and see how much time each of us is spending working on one project or another. If they see someone who is not working, they can call him or her on the phone. If they see someone who is working less than she or he ought to be, then they have the ability to ask that person to work more. But if they see someone who is working too much, they can let them know in a nice way, so that the employee knows that they are doing something wrong and that it needs to be changed.