Ashley Alcock has landed two of his biggest clients in airport lounges. “When you’re sitting in an airport lounge for two-to-three hours, it’s a great place for business leaders to network,” says the Melbourne native, who’s now business director and head of PERM recruitment for recruiting and HR consultancy firm Adecco in Bangkok, Thailand. “That’s something I’ve really missed over the past couple of years.”
As a manager of 80 people, Alcock was surprised to find that working from home (WFH) during the pandemic really challenged his team’s productivity, with varying individual results.
He wanted to better understand why and turned that curiosity into a research project – “Self-selection on Working Location and its Effect on Productivity” – for his MBA at Macquarie University Business School (MQBS) in Sydney.
Alcock quickly spotted that while some companies report productivity increases with the move to WFH, the uptick mostly relates only to “inbound” work, such as call centres, as opposed to those in an “outbound” industry, such as sales or recruitment, when you have to get out there and find new clients or candidates. Without face-to-face interaction or even something as simple as the old office phone line, it can take a lot more effort to get every win.
“At the start of the crisis, many employees hadn’t connected their office lines with their mobiles so communication flows were heavily impacted,” says Alcock. “And with employees granted more flexibility we also found clients and candidates were harder to contact or preferred to only communicate through email while working from home.”
Do people stretch the truth when they’re working from home?
Maroš Servátka, professor of economics at MQBS and founder of the Experimental Economics Laboratory, was Alcock’s supervisor for the research project.
“One of our aims at MQBS is to generate new knowledge for companies and the wider society,” says Servátka. “Ash and I talked about how businesses were surveying employees about whether they were more productive from home and how that would, of course, lead to biased answers. Economists are generally quite sceptical about what people say. We are more interested in what they really do!”
The goal was to understand what the future might hold with WFH becoming the new normal – for at least part of the time – for many teams. Servátka thought there were a number of factors playing into WFH productivity early on in the pandemic, including concern about job security leading people to work harder.
“So rather than running just a quick study, we conducted it over nine months. We were interested in what the steady state would be once things settled down,” he says. “If the long-term environment is going to change to companies allowing employees to choose to work from home, will this lead to better performance or worse?
“Arguably, people know whether they are more productive at home or in the office for the tasks they perform. And if an employee prefers to work from home but the company does not allow WFH, the employee might move to a different company that does. Hence, it’s better to find out how your employees who prefer flexibility fare before they start leaving.”
Alcock’s blind field experiment divided his recruitment professionals into six categories: those who self-selected to work from home, those who self-selected to work from the office, a randomly selected group forced to work in the office, a group forced to work from home, new employees onboarded at the office and new employees onboarded from home.
They measured productivity around the number of phone calls made, candidate interviews that followed those, candidate profiles submitted, candidate-client meetings and revenue generated from successful hires.
“The groups that were forced to work either from home or the office were more negatively affected, with the forced home group least productive,” Alcock says. In contrast, those who were forced to work in the office had only a slightly lower productivity result than those who chose to do so.
“But not all the results are gloomy. We also found that empowering employees by allowing them to choose led to better performance. For example, experienced employees and working parents who chose WFH were more productive and did longer cumulative hours weekly, albeit outside the traditional 9-5 work day.”
WFH is a choice sales people might not get to make
Wearing his recruiter’s hat, Alcock says employees know they now have much more choice. “I think we’ll see companies that are totally remote, companies that are totally in the office and companies that are hybrid – and people will choose which of those three working environments is best for them. In due course, this will strengthen reciprocity between employers and employees.”
But he believes sales teams ideally need face-to-face contact with each other and their clients and he’s in no doubt that he needs his team to be physically together. “It’s just so hard to get team cohesion when you lose the spontaneity of conversations on the floor.”
Onboarding new staff for his team has been particularly challenging during WFH. “Everyone I’ve spoken to from an outbound industry says that remote onboarding just doesn’t work in this kind of dynamic environment. New employees struggle to form a psychological contract and become a part of the team, even though they have completed the exact same two-week training module that new recruits go through in the office. The on-floor self-learning experience, sharing and collaboration is vital for success.”
Alcock says it’s shown him what he took for granted as a fresh recruit – “all that on-floor experience and learning I got from observing, mimicking, watching senior members, listening on the floor and seeing how they react and talk to clients. It’s very hard to do that in a PowerPoint slide deck over Zoom. Forming colleague friendships and regular communication is also strained. Scheduled group and individual calls lack spontaneity – let alone forcing everyone to have their cameras on. It doesn’t create the same collective working environment.”
Economist Servátka says there’s also “close to zero probability” that a new employee will reach out to a colleague for help if they’ve never had a coffee together or socialised in some capacity. “There’s a reason businesses have spent money organising team-building retreats in exotic locations for so many decades,” says Servátka. “It’s a perk, for sure, but it works. We have conducted experiments that support this conclusion.”
The return of the retreat, as well as frequent business trips, can’t come fast enough for Alcock. “I’ve been to so many countries with Adecco, either for work or as rewards. When I was based in Hong Kong, we went to Singapore, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and Thailand. It’s been amazing.”
Business travellers are “generally very productive”, he adds. “You do your meeting then you’re on the flight and that’s where you’re going to write up your notes. I get a lot of work done when I’m flying. I’ll put a movie on in the background but I set up my laptop and write away. I’ve really missed that.”