For all the departments looking to have people back in the office, they frequently will use the phrase, “So, yeah, we’re looking to have people back in the office at least some of the time because the research shows that it’s better.”
And when they say it, most people listening think it is complete bullsh**. Particularly EC policy wonks who see and hear that phrase every day from stakeholder groups, academics, think tanks, lobby groups, Joe who works at the corner deli. Everyone. And our job is to look at their evidence. “Really, you have research? Well, let’s see that research, show me your evidence, your methodology.” We eat that sh** for breakfast. I don’t want to overstate the case, but honestly, most of the ECs have spent the last 80% of their career ripping apart false claims based on so-called “evidence” that group A’s approach is better than what we’re already funding. Heck, we TRAIN our policy wonks to look for those tricks.
But, well, the people making the claims are not completely wrong. Let’s look at some of the areas of research.
Decades of academic research about business
If you go back to the era just before the introduction of the assembly line, people had realized that a central site for working was better than a whole bunch of solo workers working on their own. Craftsmen working together led to a separation of duties and the creation of an assembly line. Sure, it was more complicated than that, there were other variables, but economies of scale, distributed work, etc all seemed to argue for a general one-size-fits-all model. There were some counter-factuals, of course…those endeavours that were less procedure-oriented and more dynamic / interactive tended not to benefit from assembly line production, but they still benefited from increased interaction in person. The research is mostly private-sector focused, of course, given the timeframe.
If you take that initial private-sector view and apply some of it to the public-sector, you can start to see the underpinnings for Weber’s view of bureaucracy, Mintzberg’s analysis of management and organizations, and so on all the way up to more generalized theories of organizational theory, even the classic Images of Organization. Combined, the various pieces show things in government that are amenable to routinization and process, and those that are not, stuff about delivery design, the deliverology world even. Without dipping too far into specific results or findings, generally, service delivery can be treated as process, some aspects of approval, tech sides, etc., but the two largest gaps that are not amenable to routine are policy and overall governance, too iterative and dynamic.
At this point, the research tended to look less at procedural models as that was relatively routinized. You could nail it down, identify inputs and outputs, identify all the pieces, and ensure consistency of process through direct oversight and perhaps itemized manuals or checklists.
By contrast, the “dynamic” areas needed to learn from available collaboration models. It basically pulls together all the strands around the need for soft-skills, group projects, the benefits of collaboration between people, the whole “sum is greater than its parts”. It ties into “wisdom of the crowd”, to some extent, but the research feels a bit dated because no one questions much if horizontal groups can produce better results than individuals in silos. Any “barrier” such as paralysis by analysis, is treated in the literature as mainly more about externalities to be managed rather than fundamental challenges to the research. It’s all old hat now.
An additional thread includes communication models. About 45y of research on communications comes to the conclusion that comms is better face-to-face. All the stuff about body language, the need for collaboration, bouncing ideas, brain-storming. All the standard fuzzy stuff people say and believe when they talk about in-person collaboration, voices being heard, open forums, open sharing, etc. etc. etc. And when they have looked at alternative models, they’ve shown that people at home or in distributed networks cannot produce those high-quality interactive outcomes that you can do face to face. There is very little research challenging that theory, it is relatively black-letter findings — in person is generally better for collaboration than from a distance, and while there are ways to work together at a distance, they are almost all “solutions” to use if and only if you can’t get together in person (i.e., Google Docs, for example, or conference calls).
But that isn’t the whole picture. Another area looks more at the question of “place” in all this, and if pull together the work of Nobel-winning economists like Amartya Sen, add in theories of human development and social capital, and add in research on learning models, you get a strong thread around the benefits of a campus environment for learning, sharing, etc. There are online offerings for academia, for example, like Coursera or Athabasca or the University of Phoenix, but they trade off ease-of-access against personal interaction and mentoring models, which as per above, are deemed desirable for things like policy and governance. Remote campuses have existed for academia for years, but they haven’t replaced brick-and-mortar universities for idea generation and learning.
Finally, there is a lot of “culture” research that exists about the importance of “place” as part of culture. Some of it looks at large-scale issues like removing people in the Middle East from their homelands or displacing Indigenous populations, that the displacement represents a loss of culture as part of their identity corresponds to place. Other times it is more organizationally based, where people working at Site 1 of a company end up with a very different culture than Site 2, with the physical space having a lot to do with how people identify and interact. The physical space matters not only in HOW the space is defined but that it is defined at all. People working remotely do not identify as strongly with their organization as those who work in a physical office for the same company.
What does it all mean?
It means that up until March 12, 2020, nobody questioned whether any of the work should be done from home. All of the external research of business and culture, organizational theory and communications, collaboration and governance, it all showed the same thing. People work better and more collaboratively in person than at a distance.
That research has, in many ways, influenced lots of other areas besides the public service. Tons of companies have said, “Yeah, we need at least some of our people back some of the time”. Parents worry about children doing academic work entirely online and missing out on the uber-important social interactions with peers. The things that are harder to replicate online. Heck, the normal zeitgeist of most popular parenting is that too much online, in whatever form, too much screen time is a cost to be avoided for any reason. And, sure, if you look at the research, some of it is compelling.
Some of it is complete crap, though. The same research that questions screentime also shows increased aptitude for problem-solving, digital skills, etc., all things that are important for the future labour market and society in general. So none of it should be taken as dogma, but it isn’t wrong. Studies of adults have shown that while online engagement can temporarily reduce feelings of isolation, they also increase the likelihood of parasocial relationships (the illusion of a relationship with someone you interacted with being more intense than it actually is) and future alienation as online communities ebb and flow. People make relationships in one area, say a shared interest in a TV show, but when the show is eventually cancelled, the interest of the group may wane, leaving some of the participants stranded, not unlike graduating from high school without a social network that continues as many people were a “school friend”, rather than friends IRL. While some crap research claims none of it is real, the real research seems to show that online interaction can frequently provide temporary reprieve, but will fade over time. I’ll come back to this point in a future post, as some of those cracks are already showing. Just know that there are issues.
All of which leaves us with three general research conclusions:
- Routinized work can be done at a distant but even it benefits from in-person interpersonal interactions;
- Knowledge work, like policy, absolutely needs in-person interaction;
- Remote work isn’t great for mental health and personal connectivity.
Lots of people are better at weaving that story than me. Mine is just a rough approximation.
Yet some of that research may not hold
If you look at the research, particularly on working in-person or working at a distance, almost all of it was done assuming that remote work was generally by phone or email. Almost none of it envisioned full video chat on a whim from your desktop. Almost nobody was that digitally enabled previously, it was too expensive. Certainly not in government. Maybe it would be used for large or high-level meetings, but working-level people certainly couldn’t click a button and call the other person like using the phone.
Yet video chatting changes the dynamic considerably. I can SEE your facial expressions. I can SEE some of your body language. Some even argue it is MORE interpersonal as I might be seeing your home in the background. Now, before you jump on board to say “Exactly! It’s just as good as in-person”, well, it isn’t. There is some research, not as much as we would all like, that shows video chatting is somewhere in-between the two. The simple act of a screen puts distance between people and the way they interact. They tend to be more formal than in-person, less open and transparent. They can, in fact, hide some of their body language signs, and that’s even assuming everyone’s camera is ON in the meeting. Most of the time, senior people have their video on and lots of junior staff do not. And sure, yahoo X wants to say, “Well that’s not the case for ME”, but it isn’t about them individually, it is about organizations writ large. And on average, it’s not quite as good as in-person interaction.
Equally, much of the research was done pre-COVID and relied on old models of work. So, if they looked at work-from-home, for example, they assumed people were talking on the phone or sending emails, maybe short text messages (as per above), AND that only one of the people were generally WFH. The rest were in the office, such as in a duty-to-accommodate model. So, as I outlined in a previous post, management wasn’t “all-in” on WFH and managing remote staff. As such, much of the research looked at DTA models and the limitations they imposed vis-a-vis in-person work. But if everyone is working remotely, do those limitations still apply? Somewhat yes (it’s still the same managers), somewhat no (others are in the same boat, and the tide has been rising).
I confess, another area of the research really bugs me. So, let’s say you’re comparing in-person vs. remote work. When they do, and they are touting all the benefits of in-person work, they use the “ideal” model. People who are open, dynamic, collaborative, cooperative, extroverted, thoughtful, respectful meeting in a mid-sized group with a professional facilitator who barely has to intervene because it is just organically driven. That NEVER happens. We know there are going to be jerks who monopolize the microphone. Someone who has to leave early to get their kid or is on compressed schedule. Another person who is dealing with some health issues and isn’t feeling much like being open or dynamic let alone sharing. And we almost never have a session with a professional facilitator let alone a meeting that is so organically brilliant we wouldn’t even need one. Let’s face it. The government sucks at running meetings. It’s a bad Dilbert cartoon on the best of days. So, if the face-to-face ones suck, are the remote ones that much worse? Or is it about the same, but I can be wearing pajama bottoms and bunny slippers? Don’t even get me started on the assumptions that ties into a lot of the “research” by communications majors who are extroverts by nature, love in-person work, and think all technology is the Devil’s work.
But the new research is hard to challenge
So, we’re ECs, we can rip all of that to shreds. And we have the last 2 years as OUR evidence, right?
Except departments have done additional “research” too. Many departments ran multiple pilots and test initiatives for return to work models — full-time on-site, hybrid / mixed for the week, etc. And then surveyed the participants, almost all of whom said there were benefits to being back in the office. Your colleagues tried it out, with all the new fangled toys at their fingertips at home, and then said, “Yep, there’s a benefit to being in the office.”
Now, to be clear, they didn’t say “better”, they said there are benefits at the office you don’t get at home. They gained by going in. Particularly for policy discussions but even for other process stuff. Those bast**ds, they screwed us. 🙂 And it is really hard to tell a DM they’re wrong when they “tested” the models and the employees confirmed, “Mmmm, office good” (or mumblings about their precious, it’s hard to tell).
I like to niggle a bit though. People did those tests when their home lives were still much in lockdown. They couldn’t go see their friends, they weren’t out socializing in restaurants fully, there were still mask mandates in place. So many of them were feeling isolated from friends and family. Then they went to the office, got to see people in person, and went, “Yeah, there’s a benefit to my mental health of seeing people in person.”
Well, of course there was. Nobody said there wasn’t. But is that the same test as if they were fully maskless and visiting with anyone and everyone i.e., having a full social life? Would they still feel the resonance of seeing people in person? Likely yes, to some extent, but not necessarily to offset the challenges of commuting, working in a hoteling environment, etc.
But it’s the most recent evidence, and it happens to agree with decades of research.
So what now?
So they say “research shows” and it is mostly true, it is generally what the research shows. However, for me, the research is a bit like the quote from The Princess Bride…I’m not sure it means what they think it means, when we just did 2 years of experimental design to test WFH in the new model. That testing tends to show trade-offs, not that one model is better than the other.
Yet while lots of employees want to say, “But everything is working fine the way it is!”, it really isn’t. There are cracks showing in the foundations of departments. Managers see it. Executives see it more. Senior personnel are seeing full-size gaps in their departments. Mostly hidden by transactional success. But the gaps are there.
Everything is NOT all right.