– By Fabiola Eyholzer –
I cannot count the number of times recently I have come across news articles and comments from companies and whole industries and sectors bragging about how ‘Agile’ they were in their response to the pandemic. And I am sorry to say; these articles make me roll my eyes.
Of course, many companies showed great resilience and adaptability in these unprecedented times. But in most of the cases mentioned in the articles, they essentially praised themselves for being ‘Agile’ because they pulled off working from home during the shutdown.
I get it. This may have been a huge deal for some companies. While some quickly equipped their employees with state-of-the art webcams, 4K screens, ergonomically formed keyboards, others were busy putting out announcements threatening people with lawsuits if they were even thinking about taking any IT equipment home with them.
But allowing people to work from the safety of their home during a pandemic (and ordered lockdown) makes you about as agile as putting on a pair of skates makes you a hockey player.
The reluctant to allow work from home
When forced with pretty much no other alternative, they finally allowed employees to work from home. Great. This is pretty standard in modern organizations and people have wanted more flexibility regarding where they work for years, but many organizations remained reluctant or even strongly opposed.
My favorite argument was always ‘home office is technologically not feasible for us’. I don’t need to comment on that, especially since it was always blatantly obvious the real reason why work from home was not allowed, was a different one.
In the early days of the shutdown, I spoke with a CHRO who shared with me an exchange she had with her CEO. He was concerned about work from home and wanted to know if people will actually work if they are not in the office. Her answer was brilliant. She put on a straight face and replied to him: ‘That is simple. The ones who delivered in the office, will deliver at home, and the ones who were pretending to be busy in the office, will simply pretend to be busy at home.’
This small exchange illustrates the key concern many managers have about remote work –if people are physically present and have their heads down, they are productive, but if you cannot keep an eye on them, they are not. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of outdated management practices and mindsets. Safe to say, this is not even close to agile leadership.
The reversed hockey stick curve of productivity
But let us get back to the concern of productivity and performance. It did not pan out – at least not yet. Most companies attest that their people were as or even more productive at home. This may sound like great news: Terminate your office lease, safe tons of money while increasing performance. Unfortunately, the situation is not this straight forward.
We all know the famous hockey stick growth chart: first it goes down just to skyrocket afterwards. Well, the correlation between work from home and performance it is shaping out more like a reversed hockey stick: People start out strong, just to see their performance drop.
Dr. Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist, is focused on using technology to maximize human potential. She looked into the ‘work from home productivity curve’ and recently shared her findings at the Beyond HR Forum.
They found that performance increases in the initial phase of the lockdown, but a few months in, for about 80% of people performance will slowly decline and often even drop below the baseline, whereas 20% will remain hyper-productive and continued to thrive in the remote setting.
Dr. Ming’s work reveals that the ones who are struggling rely on structure to make work work, while others need that structure to go away, so that they can self-regulate and self-organize.
Home office is not for everyone
Home office in the ‘old days’, that is until mid-March 2020, meant I can work from anywhere: my downstairs’ office, my kitchen table, but also in the park, in a coffee shop, at the beach, or at the airport. One day we will hopefully be back to that but for the unforeseeable future, home office will mean we are restricted to whatever corner we can find in our homes or backyards if you are lucky enough to have one.
I know I am pointing out the obvious: Life during the lockdown was not normal. We did not have friends to visit, events to attend, movies to see, and dinners to go to. People were literally stuck at home. There was nothing normal about the situation. People were and are scared about the future and the last thing they needed was telling their boss that virtual work is not really their thing.
But given the opportunity to decide for themselves, this may not be what many would choose, and putting on a brave front will not last indefinitely. Also, we banked on social capital that was put in place long before the pandemic.
It is smart to observe, measure, and analyze performance, especially during an event like the lockdown. At the same time, we should be careful what kind of conclusions we draw from the data. These were and are extraordinary circumstances and simply assuming that performance will continue to be high simply because some bizarre months made it so may lead us to wrong decisions.
The stakes could not be higher
I do not want to diminish the huge challenges we are facing, rather the opposite. If we believe we have done well because we managed to have people master (or at least log onto) Zoom calls, we are in even deeper trouble than I thought.
The evolution of work was happening long before the pandemic, COVID-19 only to be put it into high gear and I passionately believe in Agile as the best way forward. That is why we should not be misusing the word in such a critical time.
So, before congratulating yourself on being agile, make sure that you are truly change-ready and change willing with everything and anything that goes with it, starting with embracing agile values and principles.
If you read it until here, congrats! Here’s the link to Fabiola’s upcoming course in Agile HR practitioner.