HRHeadStart #77: Commuting & Employee Engagement; The Suitcase Problem
Time flies and I can’t believe we are at the halfway mark in the year. There’s so much going on in the world today. The year has seen the gradual waning of Covid-19, continued war in Ukraine, a banking crisis, continued economic slowdown in many parts of the world, an AI arms race driven by exciting advances in machine learning and natural language processing and so much more. It is important to stay abreast of these and assess how they will affect our lives and the world of work.
I will be taking a break from writing this newsletter and will be back in touch with you all in August. Apart from enjoying a vacation, I intend to use the time to reflect on the work I do for this community and think about new ways to help.
The Talent Agenda
If we dig deeper into history, we realize that commuting to work is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Hunter-gatherers were probably the earliest work-from-home workers and so were people from the Middle Ages who plied their trade/craft from home. The Industrial Revolution brought with it factories that started requiring people to work onsite. The modern day offices emerged around the dawn of the 20th century, driven by advancements in technologies like electricity, transportation, telegraphs and telephones. The term “telecommuting” was coined in 1973 by a NASA engineer who saw it as an innovative solution to traffic, urban density and scarcity of non-renewable energy resources. Even then, telecommuting was not thought of as remote work as we know it today. It was proposed to redesign jobs in a way that they are self-contained and can be performed at locations apart from the company headquarters. They wrote:
Our primary interest, and the greatest impact on traffic and energy consumption, was reducing the commute to work….either the jobs of the employees must be redesigned so that they can still be self-contained at each individual location, or a sufficiently sophisticated telecommunications and information storage system must be developed to allow the information transfer to occur as effectively as if the employees were centrally collocated.
Despite all of this, the percentage of white-collar workers who worked from home before the onset of the pandemic was in single digits. Commuting became a norm. The expectation to show up at work became a standard and we learned to not challenge it.
The pandemic upended all the dogma and companies today are more receptive to remote/hybrid work. However, employees continue to value flexibility and employers continue to emphasize the benefits of in-person work. So, what combination of remote and in-person work positively affects collaboration, productivity, mood and social bonds? A Gallup study of US workers suggests that employees who work in the office for 3 days a week show the highest levels of employee engagement. In fact, engagement levels drop as they spend more time than that in the office.
For a large part of my childhood and youth, suitcases looked like the above picture. It was something that you lifted horizontally and, importantly, it had no wheels - meaning you gave yourself a workout whenever you were on the move! Then someone suggested to turn it 90°, add wheels at the bottom and attach a retractable handle and, voila, life got easier! It's the same thing, but someone viewed it differently. In early parts of our careers, we are often learning the ropes and following instructions, but at some point, you need to start finding the "suitcases" in your organizations that need wheels. It's a mindset and skillset shift and you need to start asking "What could we make simpler, faster and better, even if we retain its essence?".
When you find yourself pondering what kind of work you want to do, the best question to ask yourself is “What do I really want to learn?”.